Saturday, April 26, 2014

Time to tread

Blogs rise and fall. Old grass withers away; new grass springs up, to be kept, and off which to keep. About time to fence this one off and leave it to the entropic footprints of a hooligan posterity. But first let's skirt once more, with feeling.

This desultory serial life began in late 2008. It was pitched loosely as a script of friction: what happens when you take an aspiring Australian classicist, make him foolhardily surrender his domestic idyll, plop him in the world's most tepid island tea-pot, leave to brew, and catch the words that slowly wisp into a languid vapour. It was a tried and tested experiment in travel narrative: the observer out of place, the wilful exile, the outsider desperately claiming the poetic licence not to fit in. The other key term in this ur-pattern was the place which always generously (definitely uninterestedly) hosted the rhetoric of non-belonging: Cambridge. That was the constant gluing these things together; there was the reference point of the blog. But now, as the place fades well and truly from my life, so must this tiny square of internet evanesce into the ether. But not without hurling a valedictory ode at the old town's stone face, and watching it bounce back without the slightest tremor upsetting its bushy eyebrows. And for that indifference to everything that doesn't count, and for that absolute confidence in prescribing what counts, I'll always love it. It. Don't worry, this ode won't get second-personal.

What prompts the finality? Didn't I leave a year ago, when the PhD was done and dusted? Yes, but if anything, the psychological stranglehold tightened in the interim. The clinging process began in late 2012. After my PhD, I was rent down the middle between England and Australia. I kept the options open by applying to all the fellowships in the Cambridge universe. I came very close to a job, twice. When it gradually became clear that I couldn't be a classicist in Australia without having published two books, I stopped hedging and redoubled the investment in Cambridge. The place incrementally coaxed me back into itself as I got closer and closer, made me see random dots as a clearly traced trajectory terminating in itself. One by one, the doors by turns opened and closed: third time lucky, this fourth college really means it, fifth's gotta be it, I think I'd fit the sixth one best. Plausible hits became a string of near misses. Two days ago, I had my most plausible hit and nearest miss yet, the seventh of its kind in 18 months. And that was the last shot. So there's the context of the closure. This post is an attempt to ritualise it.

The places of which you have powerful memories before you've even been to them are the hardest to let slide. Cambridge somehow lodged itself in my mind a long time before I laid eyes on it. Perhaps it was the daily walks up Cambridge St to get the train to school. Perhaps it was the granules of grit from that same street left embedded in my open skateboarding wounds, and the flesh I left crowning its tiny asphalt peaks like warm gooey snow. Perhaps there was some kind of primal boundary breakdown, a slow swapping of matter through which that remote city in East Anglia was already working its onomastic magic.

More probably, it was the University of Sydney: one of those many awkward blocks of sandstone designed to keep the 'virtual' periphery's gaze trained on the 'real' centre. From age 18, then, my walk up Cambridge St took me on a train and up a hill to another, more literal, approximation of Cambridge. It wasn't just the neo-gothic quadrangle in which I had most of my classes, albeit one where the grass was kept green only with desperate resort to Sydney's dwindling water supply, and from which no one was kept off for long. It was also the human reminders: those admired academic staff whose mystique was trebled by their shady patches of past among the far-off spires. I half-remember an afternoon Greek class where our will to plough through Plutarch's prose had waned, and so we drifted into a wrapped cross-examination of our lecturer on what life was like at Cambridge. It was one of those big pedagogical moments where the conversation is left to run into the audience, the curtain drops, and you see that other people and places beyond your tiny crew care about the same things - and somehow Plutarch began to mean a lot more than the frustrating penitentiary of a sentence he had trapped you in.

This was the time - about the midpoint of my undergraduate years - when Classics was starting to look like an occupation to me. The texts did half the work here, and to this day few things give me more pleasure than reading and writing about Latin and Greek literature. But the texts were only as good as what modern critics did with them. And the best critics in my book, the ones whose work would make you flutter and think again, defamiliarise the cosiest texts and interest you in the boring ones - these people happened to be largely concentrated in, or closely tied to, one place. You know where. So the books and articles I loved best were mostly produced in Cambridge; the teachers I loved best had all brushed through Cambridge at some point in their lives. Cambridge was more than a university, then: it created the very discipline to which I was waking up in full dedication. Cambridge and Classics locked into synonymy; and it seemed clear that I couldn't have one without the other.

Usually places so awash with dream and desire are fated to disappoint, surprise, shock; at least not yield what you so simplistically expected, running on little more than postcards, prefaces, and the odd pearl from your lecturer. But what was so strange was that I found exactly that thrilling sense of intellectual belonging I had anticipated. Strange, because it felt un-strange nearly straightaway. Here I'm talking purely about the life of the mind, and airbrushing out all the blemishes that make Cambridge such a socially dysfunctional wasteland. Finding people I could have a beer with was the last all-important piece of the puzzle, and it took a while. But the speed with which I settled into a life of heavy Classics was breakneck. Here were people that cared deeply about ideas, but flung them around the room as if they didn't mind what happened to them, as if they could go anywhere. A lot of them ended up inside me.

Cambridge, like many elite institutions, is expert at creating its own sense of omphalic centrality; a pernicious illusion, yes, but one into which I couldn't (and still can't) help buying. King's seemed at the very nub of the hub. It is a sucker for self-congratulation, saturated as it is in its own iconicity and mythology. But somehow the Classics community there seemed to practise the cherished preaching: open-mindedness, creativity, intellectual agility, the sharpest critical eyes.  To sit through a classical society do there was to have your mental defences razed by wine, and to let new thoughts routinely trample all over your old ones. Nor was it just the profs shaking it up; some of the most memorable interventions came from bold undergrads unafraid to tell it how they saw it. It was probably during these twinkling soirees that the image of good Classics solidified for me, as something beyond the accumulation of learning: an art as much about thinking as it is about knowing.

One of the alienating things about Cambridge is the language of alienation it generates in many of its inhabitants: I bet there are few privileged places on earth where the people that pass seasonally in and out of its perimeter and eventually leave forever, and even those who choose to stay longer, curse the ground they walk more habitually. I felt much of the malaise myself, but a fair chunk was empty echo of the sentiment washing around me. Politically, I couldn't find that crippling world of elite self-replication more repellent. Personally, I loved it. As a self-indulgent hypocrite, I couldn't have asked for a more extended guilty pleasure than four years reading, thinking, talking and doing my favourite objects of those favourite verbs.

Perhaps Cambridge always did feel embedded in me, and perhaps the pull is so hard to resist because it held me entranced for so long; perhaps Cambridge invaded me so quickly and decisively that I can't imagine it ever being absent. Perhaps this is all a retrospective trick of the twilight, one last special effect to make itself seem important. Whatever sorcery it's playing here, I have to thank it one last time: in its incarnation as a hope, an idea, transmuted into a surpassing reality, then turned back into hope, then fading out into nothingness, then morphing into memory. That pattern sounds like a rubbish plot. And there's an odd comfort to realising you can't fit even the deepest-set fictions you've invented for yourself.  Time to think up some new ones and see how those don't fit. Time to script some more frictions in a different corner of this internet.

And now to greener pastures, wherever they may be. At least I now know the grass I'll be keeping, always, a long way, off.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Disciplines Punished

Now that I’m tingling at the first signs of thaw, shambling along the slow exit from the longest winter of my life, it seems a good time to emerge from blog hibernation. Sorry for the delay. I can only hope you thought I was dead, so that the bland fact of my return offsets the disappointment of reading a rusty post. May your impatience with my decrepit prose be swallowed up in your relief - that I haven’t yet tired of coming up with innovative ways to make you yawn. This blog is mettlesome like that.

But death, dear cyberspace, would have been a reasonable guess on your part. For I have died many miniature deaths over the last months. I have faced down that frightful mill of crisp shirts and polished shoes and hair cuts, hitherto only glimpsed through the frosted windows of the kebab shop over my years as a student; I have tugged and tugged on the inoffensive, sensible jumpers of The Man as he has walked grimly away; I have chased the slip stream of deoderised respectability and patted down my uncouth edges, risking not even the faintest puff of broken wind.

I have been trying to get a job.

Because ‘job’ is such a nice short word, I assumed it wouldn’t be too hard to get one. I was wrong on that, by a measure of approximately forty applications and seven interviews. Jobs are hard to come by as the suits and shoes that must lead to them. And I’m not even in Spain or Greece. Seeing a job in those places would require one to dial some kind of yeti hotline and report the elusive man-shaped shadow before it fades forever into the forests of the unemployed: a waif dissolved into nothing for nobody.

Nor does the job I eventually and gratefully got allow me a moment to exhale some air and inhale a cocktail – for that job only lasts a year, and while I do that job I’ll have to apply for other jobs, and so on, ad infinitum, till I reach a point where my permanent job will be job applications. And then retirement from a career I only just managed to apply for by the midnight age 70 deadline. Great job.

This endless process asked me to package myself with the slick ribbon of the ideal employee. Or at least make a feeble, infantile attempt to giftwrap myself in the favoured patterns of serious scholar and responsible adult. Springing up naked from a fake cake was probably a bit much, and may have had something to do with one or two rejections. But the root problem was twofold: before I could even gain amateurish command over (let alone master) the art of seeming like the ideal employee, I had to understand what that ideal employee was. And that’s meant some long nights staring at the ceiling of my mind to ask myself: not just what a good classicist should look like, but what form a good modern academic should assume. And that’s meant a whole lot of further splayed ruminating on the question: What Universities Want. After the obvious, i.e. to be dramatised in a film of that name starring Mel Gibson as prospective employee and Helen Hunt as Universities, then…what do they want?

In the wake of that serpentine prelude, I wanted to air some shivers and goosebumps induced by a particular answer to that question: Interdisciplinarity. I wrote a post some time back about the floppy commonality of the ‘Interesting’ as a category in academic circles. That post was itself pretty floppy. But the ‘Interesting’ is nothing compared to the hottest inter-word on international campuses having intercrural intercourse with every interested academic. ‘Interdisciplinary’ is that sexy polysyllabic pheromone that promises to win you that funding no matter what. It’s the wonder-drug boosting your research all the way to a nice employable sweet-spot. Some people are actually doing it. Everyone wants to be doing it. Where did this verbal substance come from, where can I get some, and how can I start lacing the sentences of my research proposal with it STAT?!

The idea (as far as my one-track disciplinary mind can grasp it) is pretty simple: interdisciplinarity means research that combines the methods, insights, approaches etc. of two or more academic disciplines as they are conventionally conceived and constituted. So if you’re a philosopher thinking about concepts of ‘The Self’, working with a psychologist or literary critic, or foraying yourself into psychology or literature, might be a good way to throw up unexpected and innovative findings. Most scholars humming along nowadays are trained in one discipline to the exclusion of others, and each discipline inculcates a thousand particular habits which both enable and hinder; pool your expertise with a differently trained thinker on campus and explosive new growths emerge, as each academic pollinates and is pollinated in turn. That old hermetic specialism now looks like a mangy tumbleweed against these lush plains of free-flowing influence, which positively lactate New Knowledge. So collaborate with others, or reinvent yourself and collaborate with it, or die.

Sniffs pick up scent of creeping cynicism here, but I want to convey no such sneers. I’m a big fan of almost all interdisciplinary work, and have long admired the interdisciplinary stuff produced before ‘interdisciplinary’ was a word, and before I learnt the word. The term cuts deep into my own sense of inferiority as an aspiring scholar: it captures the kind of wide-ranging explorer I fear I can never be, stuck in my obstinate customs of thought, bogged in the habitus of my single overrun field. I have the utmost respect for the interdisciplinary project and its heroic practitioners. Every time I set myself the task of making my work sound interdisciplinary on a job application, and every time I come up short, the pain sets in, but the self-loathing gets displaced onto the nomenclature itself. Interdisciplinarity, I hate you, because I’ll never be part of you: never be inter your disciplines.

But the more I dwell on it, the less I can chalk up all my antipathy to a sense of exclusion and be done with it. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ trades on its feel-good ring, its appeal to the noblest traditions of the uni-versity: a community of truth-seekers all working together to the advancement of knowledge. It almost feels as if we’re trying to restore an originary identity, temporarily misplaced under the distracting piles of specialisation. Co-ordination, collaboration, cooperation, all under the comfy umbrella of a college. Breaking down the artificial barriers between individuals in their disciplinary garrets. The principles seem so deeply inscribed into the very foundation charter of the higher education institution. Yet they bubble up at precisely the time when neoliberal strangulation has made universities more competitive, poisonous, individualistic laboratories for producing the new humanity. So university employees are gently massaged into a desire for happy fun interesting teamwork, just as they are ever more ruthlessly reduced to vessels of labour for maximum exploitation…co…incidence?

Me in my pseudo-Marxist mode is like a kid playing dress-up with imaginary clothes, so I’ll spare you the attempted in-depth analysis. Nevertheless, I will say: the burgeoning of interdisciplinarity seems a bit fishy in this climate, right here right now. In bare terms, the interdisciplinary project can do two big things to make our good universities some sweet dosh. First, it can inflate the ‘impact’ factor of each researcher, whose interdisciplinary work could well be read and cited by double the people, in more than one discipline. And that’s not to be sneezed at when impact ratings are the key stats that dole out government cash to spluttering, money-hungry institutions. Second, it can train teachers outside their comfort zone, so that they are equipped to teach more courses beyond their disciplinary homestead. Of course it suits the modern university to have as many ‘flexible’ teachers as possible. Fewer people doing more for less is every manager’s wet dream – and universities are no exception to that sticky rule. I fear interdisciplinarity could be at the vanguard of this sorry squeeze.

In a parallel but related phenomenon, university administrations have long been trying to ‘break down disciplinary boundaries’ by those very ‘rationalising’ reorganisations that put the fear of god into every academic with bills to pay (i.e. every academic). Upscaling ‘integration’ or ‘co-operation’ is surely the kind of dejected rhetoric used when departments get stripped of their status as departments, and merge with other downcast departments; this is the enforced, top-down version of ‘interdisciplinarity’ that has made disciplines disappear. Suddenly a classical literature scholar is rubbing shoulders in cramped office quarters with an archaeologist; before you know it, they’re both in the dungeon of the History department; then without warning, History is history, subsumed under the straining arch, the shrunken conglomerate of Arts and Humanities. And that’s another thing that vexes me about eroding disciplines as an academic enterprise: if we break down these borders under the lofty sign of interdisciplinarity, we could be losing a whole lot more than just arbitrary intellectual constraints. We could be inadvertently participating in the demise of the last-ditch bulwarks against further cuts and ‘consolidations’. Disciplines are pitched camps from which to defend embattled fields; forts of ready-made legitimacy. Disciplines are intellectual spaces usually coterminous with their sheltering political spaces (departments).  So the less ‘disciplined’ staff become, the less purchase they have on the institution that bleeds them.

The point probably boils down to nothing more than a basic one about group identity and solidarity. As disciplines and departments lose their outlines, and scholars start to explore the cracks in between, those very cracks swallow them up and spit them out as independent agents without a group attachment. Next time the philosophers are on the chopping block, young Johnny, keen philosopher-cum-historian-cum-quantum physician, feels no sympathy, for he is not (just) a philosopher. The new academic is urged to carve her niche without the security blanket of the discipline, leaving her at any savvy manager’s mercy; and her spiritual secession from the discipline weakens that security blanket out of use anyway. Customisation breeds atomisation. The more you’re between, the less you belong – and the less you care.

This is definitely an unfair caricature of interdisciplinary projects, which ultimately create their own sense of shared purpose and solidarity; but it is the very temporariness of that term ‘project’ that stresses me out, with its sense of ad-hoc allegiance, its deeply unstable chemistry. Projects are begun in a rush and over in a flash. And with multiple projects on the burner at any one time, it’s easy to see why academics plead nausea. Constant combination and recombination in various interdisciplinary collaborations must make you feel part of everything and nothing. The churning, scattered attention of an interdisciplinary life distracts from the morning memo that announced they’re scrapping your maternity leave. Oh well. Better familiarise myself with another discipline.

All up, I can’t say a bad word against the intellectual headway made by interdisciplinary ventures. The big doubt is political: whose interests does this trend really serve? In any case, the fact that it often produces groundbreaking results – in short, that it works – is the most dangerous thing about it. It chimes with native academic impulses to curiosity and originality, all through the honourable route of knowledge-sharing. While it seduces us with promises of untold vistas, I can’t help the paranoia that something vital is being robbed out the back.

So I’ll have to fudge something for those interdisciplinarity-hungry applications. But my heart won’t be in it. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to call myself a classicist without red cheeks, of apology or (much) irony. I’d like to use the tag at least a little more before abandoning it to the interdisciplinary oblivion.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two Flat Sides of a Whimper

Once upon a time, I thought the upside of institutional membership was sealed camaraderie. So academies - schools, universities etc. - foster some abrasive competition at times; but they also herd us cardholders into the same abattoir. Sure, some of us get decapitated more imperfectly than others. Sure, some of us shamble along dilatedly to the tasty end with high degrees of dismemberment, while others are fortunate to cop a clean stun-and-slash. But what's important, ultimately, is that we're all providing sustenance for a society only too grateful to eat us up and poo us out. We're all in it together, and it is a waste-treatment plant.

If that metaphor makes the privileged recipients of higher education seem like victims of genocide, then my rhetoric has succeeded effortlessly.

Only with the submission of a PhD have I been able to muscle out of my own cuddly skills of self-persuasion and see academia in the grim light of day. And it's a desolate view through the window dividing me from that little whimper when, on November 8th 2012, at approximately 4.15pm, I handed two copies of three years thought to an unknown woman in a cramped little office. I gave her my all in duplicate. I gave her all the forms she could ever want, all the forms in the world. In exchange, she gave me a two-page sheet of information detailing the approach to my inevitable viva. On top was a nice piece of bold heading: 'Congratulations on submitting your thesis!' I doubted the sincerity of that photocopied sentiment. At least they could have addressed me as some kind of algebraic pronumeral. X would have been nice. But I would've happily settled for Y too.

Two great friends accompanied me as executional staff. But no matter how many of your nearest, dearest fellow humans haul you inside, kicking and screaming, tugging your most prehensible appendages, you simply can't get over the fact that you're doing this alone. As such, it was the first accomplishment of my life I couldn't fling around the room carelessly, caught up in the joyous mutual backslapping of other people around me who had just done exactly the same thing. The gangs of synchronised achievement have certainly fizzled over the years, from a big school cohort conquering themselves to a modest bunch of blear-eyed Masters students toasting their loathed dissertations. Yet they have always been gangs at some level, albeit ones of dubious vigilantist capacity. When the PhD began, the fact that other people around me were making similar motions led me to believe in an all-out choreographed extravaganza: look at us all, her in the field, him in the lab, me in the library, each of us a small part in an annoyingly popular and borderline racist music video called 'Oppa PhD'. But when it ended, I saw what it was all along: one big con to erode my social skills and erase me from the register of those who contribute something meaningful to this world. If you're about to hand in a PhD, don't do it. Stay blissful on the right side of the whimper.

Hyperbole aside (and most of my resources in that department were earmarked for the thesis itself), it was a strange feeling. Birth isn't the right way to analogise: there were few labour pains, little to no tearing of membranes on the final pushes, no real post-natal depression afterwards. Climax wouldn't get it either. There was no real narrative shape to the lead-up, just a series of random expansions, contractions, twists and tweaks. The product was still mutating right up to the moment I had to utter a performative, ceremonial 'fuck it' and print: new typos spotted, new argumental snags hooked, new awkward expressions isolated, cringed at, and smoothed over. People often complain about becoming their own worst proofreaders once the material is so numbingly familiar: your eyes assimilate everything without really processing anymore. But I found the opposite true too. Every reading turned up something different, some thorny problem or gaping crack I had hitherto chosen not to note. I could have read the thing fifteen more times and still found little rooms for improvement. But in the end, I had to guillotine the umbilical forcefully, arbitrarily. Which meant that the finished product looked no more final to me than any other of the myriad possible permutations. My supervisor is on record as saying that texts always feel more provisional to writers than readers - and that truth only hit home as I let go of both what it was, and everything it could have been.

So the awareness of infinite alternative universes, constantly in flux, punctured the importance of the one I happened to hand over. But on the other side of the whimper, the landscape was similarly flat. There are two categories of friend encircling you at the end: one hasn't submitted yet, the other has. Unsubmitted friends are most probably on the cusp and in the gory final throes; their presence for a nervously nursed half-pint is a welcome bonus, but they are hardly in the zone to let their hair down. They usually haven't showered in days, so their hair would be difficult to let down from its moulded ball of dandruff in any case. Submitted friends - unless very freshly squeezed - are, quite simply, absent.  They've all long gone on to greener pastures: better cities, better lifestyles, better states of unemployment. The calls and emails flood in, yes - but all from the remote, exotic places of post-PhD success, phone in one hand, pina colada in the other. So the happy people are absent. The despondents are present, but only grudgingly come to be reminded of how much they have left to do until their own toast of tumbleweeds.

And then there was I: content, fairly exhausted, reining myself in for the strategically-booked flight to Italy at 7am the next morning. I'm not even sure I'd have been properly placed to celebrate even if I didn't have a host of sisters and brothers to worry about, all fixated on getting out of the same plight. In the end, the thesis unveils itself as the thankless task it always was: countless hours devoted to something that two people will read in the first year, then perhaps one every five years until the Cambridge University Library of 2100 loses it in the move to Oxford (the Tory government of 2100 will have ironically decided to cut their elite education sector by 50% to pay off their spiralling debts incurred by excessive consumption of port).

But that bulky print-out wasn't the point of these three and a bit years. That point is so diffuse that I can't hope to encapsulate it in the tired final paragraph. But it must be something like: a series of bangs with some of the greatest people I've met on this earth. The whimper to end: an outlier. Thanks Cambridge, all of you. If 79,998 words is what you demand for opening up a whole new dimension, then I'll write you a long, rambling, obscure, opaque, blotchy, 250 pg cheque - any day of the academic year.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Oncoming Roll-on

My Saturdays in this town are numbered. Cambridge hangovers are now precious resources, to be jealously guarded and frugally rationed over the course of three months. Sloppy college lunches must be savoured with relish. My smattering of buy-nine-get-one-free coffee cards must be strategically consolidated and redeemed. Resilient gardenware must be obtained and laid out for my final day in Cambridge, when I fully intend to roll in that grass off which I have so scrupulously kept. I shall finally inherit the blotched, allergic complexion of the True Brit. My teeth will grow stained and distorted. And I shall never be able to express my emotions again. The incubation is nearly over. Time for the alien within to become naturalised.

Limping towards the end of my PhD, happily maimed from the most exhausting intellectual and emotional minefield of my life, I was chatting to my sagely supervisor about the wrap-up ahead. I told him I could see light at the end of the tunnel. He responded cheerily with some up-beat lyrics, perhaps reserved for all his purgatorial students twiddling their thumbs in the vestibule of promised freedom: 'Aah, when the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.' That remark could be interpreted by future commentators as something of a downer. But as I giggled my way through the rest of the meeting, gulping down his anecdotes and struggling to stifle my ever-disproportionate laughter along with them, I couldn't help but become increasingly cheered by the image.  No new metaphorical slant was making itself available. The image was fine just as it was. I was thrilled by the prospect of an oncoming train.

The enthusiastic welcoming of such future impact is definitely a sign of a PhD on the deathbed. It isn't a depressive or suicidal tick. It's merely an index of profound, gnawing boredom. I'm at a moment in the thesis where I know what my Juvenal will be about. Now I just have to trim his hair, cut his toenails, spray some aftershave in his direction, coax him into his Sunday best, and pack him off to interview - all of which equivalent tasks must be neglected in the real world, of my own body, temporarily, for the sake of getting the little guy off to a good start in this life. Against the monotonies of parenting a word document that cannot speak back to you in anything but the language of your own internal echo-chamber, the sudden rush of adrenalin on finding a light of hope converted last-minute to impending danger beckons as the best thing in the world. Anything that isn't my PhD - even insignificant and meaningless ways of troping my ambivalent future - have become the jewels of tiring days. Any mental distraction feels like the most heaving sigh of a catharsis. Which is why I have forced my recalcitrant mid-twenties body to take up skateboarding - again.

This noble pastime - last waved off when I was sixteen, and it was no longer cool - has now made a surprise comeback, when I am almost twenty-seven, and for that reason it is especially no longer cool. If some wise mentor had sat me down before my time in Cambridge and showed me through their omniscient crystal ball what I would be doing with my last days as a graduate student, I would have shattered it with my hard copy of the Oxford Latin Dictionary and thumbed to the word for 'patently ridicilous'. The only flipping I would be doing would be through weighty tomes. The only grind I would execute would be that of the daily variety, lodged safely in the ethereal surrounds of the library. My reality was now nicely grip-taped: skateboarding long ago cashed in for scholarship.

And yet here I am sealing off four years of mind-slog with regular trips to the local skatepark. Whence and wherefore this sudden regression to teenage recreation? The genesis was inevitably a little different this time. When I was fourteen, I must have picked up a skateboard because, one fatal self-conscious day, everyone in my immediate vicinity was also holding a skateboard. From there came genuine fun, commitment and community, as well as a zen seclusion from the complications of teenhood. This time the approach was much more timid. I met a seriously skating coeval in London a few months ago. We soon converged on the common conversational ground of skateboarding. He told me he did it; I told him I used to. We started waxing lyrical over our mutual admiration for Rodney Mullen, the father of modern street skating. I had always worshipped this guy not only for his stratospheric abilities, manipulating the deck as if it were a detachable limb of his body, but also for his shamelessly nerdy credentials: word on the street was he had a PhD in physics. (I've since tried to establish the veracity of that one, but still not sure. In any case, he's well into science). Here was a legend who could combine the life of the mind with the life of the grind - indeed, could embody in his unique brand of skateboarding the very poetics of science I imagined him to espouse. Even if this was more myth than man, the conversation opened the floodgates of nostalgia - but also reminded me that I might have more of a connection with this thing than a mere golden haze could fabricate.

At first I had no intention of reclaiming the gutters from my comfortably parked self. But I was fired to understand a little more about my attraction to the game. What did it reveal about teen me, that I could spend four hours repeating the same trick until I finally stuck something and rode away, with no reward awaiting me other than self-satisfaction, two bags of potato chips, and a mango yoghurt on a good day? And why was I still inexorably drawn to the rolling piece of timber? I thought that there had to be an academically legitimate way (yep, the priorities have shifted) to articulate what I felt. I asked William (London skater) if he knew any academic books on skateboarding, and he ushered me into the relevant channels. But this didn't seem like a field that would lend itself to pretentious over-theorising. While the authors trumpeted 'Of course, the Lefebvrian notion of the production of space is useful here', the skaters they interviewed usually replied 'sick ollie, bra!'. What I did learn about skateboarding discourse, if you wanna (and you do wanna) name it so, is that skateboarders habitually renounce the relevance of anything outside skateboarding to tweak their skater-identity: skating is about skating, the practice, the doing, the landings and the bails. All those little voices of anti-intellectualism were wresting the book from me with one hand, stuffing a board under my arm with the other.

These voices were ultimately imaginary and easily suppressed. The only thing they made me do - in my  chronic shit-talking and flirtation with futures never to be realised - was sound off about wanting to start skateboarding again. It took a wealthy philanthropist named Carlos to take me at my empty word and put the plan into practice. We searched for hours on Ebay, scouring cyberspace for its best deals. Scores of brand names, obscure to the majority of the population, came bubbling up from deep in my core, stowed away for years in ominous dormancy: Chocolate, Alien Workshop, Venture, Spitfire, Element, World Ind. - all these names were still much more familiar to me than irregular Greek verbs. Two judicious purchases and four overpriced shoes later, we were back on the street. And we could still - sort of - do it. Our twenty-something bodies felt every creak in every joint, punished every slight stumble with overkill, forbidding bruises. But we pushed through until confident enough to join the Youth down the skatepark. Now Carlos is board-sliding his way to bliss. And I am stressing myself in an attempt to master the complex etiquette and politics of the concrete. But we're getting somewhere.

I can't deny this all must be, at some level, a knee-jerk flight back to infantile silliness, away from a fairly mundane and stressful time in our lives. But the impulse to push off again feels independent of my particular biographical constraints too. Something about this sport chimes with my deep-rooted compulsiveness and monomania. Repeating tricks ad nauseam, slowly gaining proficiency, inching closer to that evasive nose-slide - I forget everything but limbs and board in this supercharged version of my fetish for routine. There is also something (broadly) mathematical about the way board and body carve out lines across the surface, breaking up the flow with brief sharp shifts in angle, ever-updating relations between concrete, metal, timber and flesh. Kids should be taught physics and geometry in their local skatepark. That would be my first initiative as Minister of Ill-conceived Ideas.

Apart from those reflections, most of which could have been lifted from those very pretentious books I recently had the audacity to condemn, I'm also charmed by the ease with which I forget my age on the hard pitch. This healthy oblivion is real release from the growing, and increasingly unavoidable, reminders of adult responsibility: stress, job applications, ever severer hangovers. But yesterday I stood with an eight-year-old kid for a few minutes and showed him how to kick-flip. It didn't feel didactic at all. It was one skater talking to another. Carlos and I only realised how ridiculous we must have looked - two grown men scarred with untended facial hair, kicking it with our pre-pubescent homies - when we got on our more mature forms of transport (cycles) and made the trip back to adulthood. Age distinctions momentarily collapse, at least until your less supple limbs do the same, and your paralysed thighs reassert the kingship of time.

People often ask me whether 'Juvenal' has anything to do with 'juvenile'. Well here you have a moving argument for the connection. If it turns out to be an oncoming train, better to have rolled on into it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Better Read

As a full time student of literature, text is both my pleasure and suffering, my lifesource and anathema. I spend whole days laying the foundations for future debilitating back problems, staring ahead into a screen of many ordered characters, then glancing down periodically to gather visual information from a slate of dead tree that has already absorbed the sweat, snot, spit and dandruff of a thousand others before me. I follow the line of letters from left to right until there are no more letters, and I must inconveniently skip back to the extreme left again, moving down one row without dissolving the mental imprint of the previous one. I must maintain the process continuously and look up only when another sector of reality - such as the birth of my first child - competes for my cognitive resources. When my second child is born, it will be business as usual: what the next reader will take for dandruff will really be flecks of bloody placenta.

If I spend the day reading and claim this to be the day's major activity when I communicate it to my friend in the pub later that evening, s/he will most probably comprehend that statement and enquire no further. 'I did some reading' (for you would never be satisfied with the amount of reading that you had done) is a perfectly satisfactory contribution to the exchange of daily pleasantries, especially when the exchange is between people of academic inclinations (as it usually is round these parts). Everyone knows what you mean when you say you read. But as with most things so habitual, familiarity anaesthetises and domesticates the many-headed beast. Those people sitting across from me in the library seem to be participating in an analogous activity: they're also looking down at a book and following words with darting eyes. But how do I know they're running in true parallel? And - even in the slightly better-lit labyrinth of my own brain - why does the word 'read' come out to describe so many different interpretive operations? Textual metaphors have appropriated the world so thoroughly in my case that I can never stop reading. Do you read me?

I moaned in a previous post about my increasing drift towards and inevitable shipwreck on the reef of the textual. When I go to art galleries and museums I gravitate to the accompanying text - that would be the peritext, if we were talking text, which we're not, but it's all I've got - even before I bother looking at the work 'itself'. I need to read reviews of films before and after I see them in order to extract some method from their hostile over-visual madness. I lurch towards my laptop after every important football match to read a good journalistic assessment before I make up my own mind. In short, most encounters with reality I have are mediated by reading, and I am rarely not reading. This reading may not always be meaningful or taxing. But all up I think I spend more time deciphering text than I did five years ago, and then much more than five years before that. These reflections were in fact prompted by a rare moment of out-of-body self-awareness as I mentally stepped beyond my self to read it in context on the way home the other day. A friend had given me a book, and I had no bag to put it in for the fifteen minute cycle out of town. I kept it between my hand and the handlebars for as long as I needed to keep my eyes on the road, but as soon as I got to a quiet patch the temptation became overwhelming: I leant back on my seat, absolved my hands of their steering duties, and diverted them to opening the book instead. I read the book for several seconds until I realised I had become a cycling postcard image of the worst excesses of academia. But then I just wanted to get to the end of the paragraph...

Despite reading's status as extreme sport with its attendant hazards, I'm still here, still reading. And one of the things I've done some reading on lately is the reading technologies and practices of the ancient world. Ever since learning about the oral tradition of poetic composition lying behind the text of Our First Great Western Poet 'Homer', I've been a little knee-jerk suspicious of the modern bookworm's fetishisation of a once-upon-a-time-before-text. Any emphasis on the oral seemed to deprive me of every tool in my critical box of tricks: poetry designed for one-off hearing couldn't have been nearly as complex as poetry designed for unlimited re-reading. Oral performance seemed to restrict the field of literary criticism to the superficial and the obvious, and I wanted nothing to do with it. But now my reading about the oral phenomenon has (ironically) opened me up to a very basic jaw-drop at how different the experience of a 'text' would have been, even in the less textually laconic (compared to Homeric times) period of history I work on. The myth that Augustine was the first man to practise silent reading has now been comprehensively debunked, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of reading in the ancient world was done aloud. If you weren't reciting your latest poem to your mates and absorbing their feedback, you were poking your slave to read you a long classic into the early hours. Writing, too, was not our highly private intercourse between author and muse, but a process of dictation from commandeering master to faithfully transcribing slave. To transport yourself back to these foreign modes of literary production and consumption is nothing less violent than a mind-rape.

The technologies of reading and writing at least affect, at most dictate, how you do both; and if you want to travel down the Orwellian road no longer travelled by serious scientists, which I stick to from stubbornness and nostalgia - that language governs thought (cf. that misquoted Wittgenstein schtick about limits of language being coterminous with limits of world) - then these technologies must also affect the way you think. The other example of mind-rape when it comes to envisioning ancient reading - and the one that provokes the most incredulity at conversationally-struggling dinner parties - is the fact that ancient texts had almost no punctuation. Classical Greek practice was to write a pure stream of uninterrupted upper-case letters, no word breaks, no commas, no full stops. Justashitloadofletterswithoutend. The Romans, ever the schematisers, road-makers and landscapers, introduced word breaks for a good while - but then abandoned them around the time my poet Juvenal began writing. Needless to say the experience of hacking through this textual thicket - not to mention the cognitive skills required as machete - must have been insanely different. One of my favourite recent articles on classical literature performs selected thought experiments that show up the weird things resulting from a restoration of the 'neutral' text without punctuation. A basic effect is that, narratologically speaking, you often lose sight of precisely who is speaking: 'author', 'character', 'character-within-mouth-of-character' are all uncertainly assigned and jumbled in a cacophony of possibility. Modern punctuated editions of classical texts like to claim to stand on the shoulders of giants and present themselves as the cumulative summit of thousands of years hard scholarly (usually German) work, monuments dedicated to solving these very problems of clarity (attribution of speech among them). But clarification charges its price: readers are mollycoddled into smoother transactions of meaning, sat down in front of the textual television to be nicely entertained. Every edited text is a condescending lump of spoon-feeding constituted by other people's concealed - often bad - decisions. And that includes this one. Full stop.

Faux-snobbery aside, the thought of those forbiddingly neutral ancient texts chills me to the core. It also makes me wander into the politically sensitive territory of human 'progress' in literacy. We often use literacy rates as a sound index for the general population's level of education - and everyone knows how far the world has travelled in that regard, with a much greater proportion of literate souls alive today than ever before. But the embarrassing underbelly of this lurch forward is that reading itself has become much easier. And I ain't just talking punctuation either. The sprawling periodic sentences and complicated syntax of Ancient Greek and Latin required reader to store huge amounts of information; often it would take till the end of a several-line sentence to discover/clarify that sentence's grammatical structure. Non-linear syntax would have teamed up with non-existent punctuation to render reading a head-splitting process of decoding at sight. The number of people equipped to do it would have been closer to the number of people now capable of smashing out some Rachmaninov (or insert difficult composer of whom I am ignorant) at first glance. Which isn't to say that many humans couldn't do it if they applied themselves industriously. But it would demand an intimidating amount of time and discipline - perhaps about the same amount as was available to the average member of the Good and the Leisured class.

When I realised the magnitude of the feat that was ancient reading, I started thinking about how far my own reading practices and turns of interpretation are simply governed by my linguistic ineptitude. I'm not confessing impostor status here. I can read Latin after all these years. But the way I read it is slowly, laboriously, with constant side nod to dictionary and explanatory literature. Often my readerly struggles   force me into paying disproportionate attention to the visual and surface aspects of the text: I notice straightaway, for example, if a word is repeated within a poem, and I immediately start pressing on what this repetition could mean. If it doesn't appear to mean anything, I push as hard as possible to make it mean something; I lean against the text's wall and make constipated noise until the whole edifice threatens to crumble in a spectacularly fruitful cycle of demolition and creation. But sometimes this monomania for the minutiae of verbal echoes feels like a workshop of horrors. If I were reading an English poem, would I care that the word 'hair' was repeated in lines 23 and 96? Would it matter? Formalism, I fear, is oft the first refuge of mild incompetence.

The problem is, I'm sure it ain't just me. My particular area of study - Latin literature - has seen an explosion of interest in the concept of 'allusion' in recent days: the moment, that is, when one text refers to another, and what that particular interaction signifies. A lot of these allusions are precise and compact verbal echoes: groups of two or three words in close proximity, usually slightly modified in their new context. But I wonder if these snippets don't stand out against their backdrop of dead language much more through our surface-skim reading habits, latching as we do onto repeated verbal motifs and clinging to them for dear life; treating the text as a pretty painting which offers meaning through flashes of similarity and difference when placed against other pretty paintings in the vicinity. Obsession with allusion peaks just as the wave of critics with mediocre Latin begins to crash on the shore. Coincidence? Hopefully. Even I'm surprised at how old I'm sounding.

Just as oral modes of communication become the fetish of the nerdy written culture, so do the classicists of previous generations always seem sexier: more knowledgeable, more fluent, more at ease gliding through the text apace, chewing it up as if it were so much high level English. The idea must have a good quantity of myth to it. But there must also be some truth tucked away in those familiar folds of decline. When I look at a page of Latin nowadays - when I 'read' it - my brain must be doing something very different to what Augustus' was doing when he heard/read that passage of Virgil, and different still  to what an 18th century scholar's was doing when they marked up that ode of Horace with confident ink strokes. Just because we curled into ourselves from reading aloud to silent scanning doesn't necessarily mean we should be mute about the manifold modes of textual absorption we employ every day, particularly those involving dead and difficult languages. Think about it now; in one thousand years, what you've just done probably won't qualify as reading. Read it and weep.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

On the Outside of Inside

I'll anticipate your prayers to spare you another long travelogue by responding to them in advance. That's how much I care for my readers. But the following post will require at least incidental mention of the following fact: I just spent a week in Sicily. For details, obtain your local Rough Guide, circle the cheapest recommendation in each category, and proceed from Catania to Agrigento, allowing the odd extra-textual anomaly in between. I've now betrayed the key to shortcircuiting the loquacious narratives of this blog. You'll have a lot more time on your hands now. Why not go to Sicily?  I can safely endorse the Rough Guide.

Whenever asked the inevitable question 'how was your holiday?', I'm drawn to the classic reply: 'it was good to get away.' That's because I've heard this same reply successfully and convincingly retailed by others. But then I started weighing out the by-catch of this pre-fab linguistic unit. Few naturalised formulas could be as offensive when actually thought to their conclusion. Most of the time we fling this throwaway off to a fellow inhabitant of our permanent surroundings who has taken a good chunk of time and space out of their own memory to remember that we were on a vacation. How do we reward them? 'Yeah, was good to get away from this shithole. Hope you had a nice time munching through those prison rations, sucker.' We flaunt our only-ever-brief liberation in our innocent interlocutor's face. Saying 'it was good to get away', in its blatant self-evidence, conceals the bitchy implication that it was unpleasant to stay here.

Wherefore this constant compulsion to leave the living quarters temporarily, and the smug assault on those who remain? Why the fetishisation of greener grass? If here were really that bad, you'd be dead. But then, some heres in the world are better to get away from than others. I could have sworn I'd heard the desire for, and satisfaction with, 'getting away' about ten times less in Sydney compared to Cambridge. This may have had as much to do with temporal here as the spatial now: in Sydney we were small twenty-three year olds turgid with our own potential, as yet only ankle deep in a system geared to work us to the bone in exchange for the slim pickings of material prosperity. But even with the considerable error margin of nostalgia and idealisation factored in, there is something wholly particular about the way Cambridge creates a mythical outside and sparks the desire to flee to it. People routinely talk of 'needing to get out', whether short term, mid term or long term. We all 'need to get to London from time to time'. My Italian housemate howls to the full moon 'che galera!' (what a jail!). My British friend has just escaped to Germany for time indeterminate, plucking up the courage to intermit his fully-funded PhD. My other British friend is working long hours to blow off this one-horse town and never look back. My New Yorker friend signed, sealed and delivered his thesis in record time only to board a plane straight back to his Mother Apple. In short, I've never met so many people from so many places who don't want to be here.

Before the University posts this piece on its website to attract new students, it's worth asking: where did the dream go wrong? Surely everyone arrived here raring to imbibe from and contribute to one of the greatest intellectual hubs in the world. You don't suffer through a paper-heavy application process, and in many cases an interview, to scramble for a position in a place where you don't want to be. Something moulders away in the hearts of these Cambridge grad students such that, in the course of three or four years, the epithets turn from 'enchanting', 'stimulating', 'amazing' to 'suffocating', 'claustrophobic', 'stressful'. The place itself stays mercilessly consistent, so it seems that we're talking prisons of the mind. It could just be the blueprint trajectory of the grad student replicated throughout the world's universities: the unbending arc of the PhD necessarily steers you from excitement at the prospect of changing your field, to hopeless disorientation as to what precisely you're changing, to disappointment-tinged indifference to the possibility of changing anything. The psychology of self-directed research definitely plays in somewhere, somehow. I don't have much comparative data to run on here apart from the universal stereotype of the wretched grad student. But even despite this, Cambridge seems to come packaged with a very particular brand of abjection, manifesting regularly in the spring to ejection.

I don't think this is a mere matter of social self-selection. Granted, I may gravitate towards people who consider themselves fuller people than the very flaccid and narrow priorities that Cambridge recycles, and those people will always churn out dissatisfaction with the game; but the pathology feels much more pandemic. I've patted a few friends on the back recently for making it through the remorseless palpitations of Junior Research Fellowship (three-year post-doctoral research-only positions, particular to Oxbridge and highly sought after in said game) applications  and ending up the last candidates standing from pools of up to four hundred applicants. But beam a smile to these people to fire them into acknowledging the magnitude of their achievement and they look back with a sad, empty gaze: all it means to them is three more years in Cambridge, ugh, meh. Even people that jump through electrified hoops to extend their stay here profess not to be so fussed about the goal they've just scored. With a few  glistening exceptions, this is the normal range of relation between grad student and place: grudging tolerance at best, outright loathing at worst. And always respiring on the belief that it will be better outside, once the 80 000 word bond between supervisor and supervised has been dissolved good and proper.

Living in Cambridge (as student) seems to require the rhetoric of discontentment for reasons bigger than 'that's what everyone else says'. The turn also functions as guarantor of sanity and survival. If most people here (including me) keep one foot pointed towards the train station, they are also (including me) insecure about the 'right' they can claim to maintain the other foot squarely planted in such an elite community. I'd wager the two are pretty close siblings. Every student here - even the most talented, even those whose oversupply of confidence more than makes up for whatever talent they lack - is confronted daily with their own inadequacy; there is always a better brain working more smoothly just around the corner. And even when there isn't a better brain, just a complementary brain, or a brain dressed up to look its best, you inevitably invent a better brain. I was pub-chatting with a friend the other night about how easy it would be to wage psychological warfare in this hive of paranoia, should you be so evilly inclined: only go into the library with a big stack of freshly-minted, tightly-footnoted paper and place it just within your coeval and competitor's peripheral vision. The document will actually be a five-part series of instructions on how to turn cow-poo into shower gel, with footnotes such as 'cf. bollocky arse pretentious wank' and 'see the tinia between my second and third toe, p. 74' - but the distant observer's nagging conscience about their own slow progress will squint painfully and turn such fluff into diamond-studded academic prose. Every A4 page in sight is the product of better.

One good trick to swerve around the meetings with one's own inadequacy is precisely the pose of partial loathing and detachment that so many good souls employ here. If Cambridge is bought into wholesale, these meetings become more and more frequent, more and more corrosive; but interpose a judicious distance between Cambridge's values and your own, and whammy, you have a healthy buffer against potential failure. Didn't want your recognition anyway, whatever.  I feel like I'm erecting these ridiculously simple (and perhaps flimsy) psychological fortifications more and more nowadays. But, like heroin I suppose, it's astounding how effective they are in the short term. And I think resort to them will only become more regular as I gear up for the inevitable barrage of rejection that is the job application process. Indeed, it's already begun. After puffing out the cushions in preparation to go somewhere else, laying the justificatory groundwork for leaving Cambridge by turning necessity into volition, cursing this spiritually emaciating place...I suddenly swivelled in the shape of an embarrassing volte-face when a temporary (two-year) teaching post came up in the faculty. Yeah, why not apply? Cambridge ain't that bad. Ain't that bad, pfft, what am I talking about, it's actually the best place in the world! My mind let down its makeshift floodgates and allowed me to swim in the milky prospects of being here another two years. And then, predictably, I got a letter containing a politely worded 'thanks but no thanks'. Within seconds, my heart sank, but only fell a couple of millimetres into the safety net I immediately re-installed. Bah, it's for the best. I really need to finish my PhD. It would have been an enervating slog. And did I really want to prolong my sojourn in this parochial English village? One door closes and all that. The speed and efficiency with which the self-contradictory self-defences kicked in was nothing short of comical.

Petty manoeuvres of self-protection aside, the pose of detachment that Cambridge so prolifically generates must also serve an apotropaic purpose, to ward off the evil eye: for deep in the recesses of our detachable and detaching minds, most of us know how privileged we are to be marinating in this quaint bubble of verdant lawns, iced Pimms and tidy hors d'oeuvres. And I predict that this will only become fully apparent when the outside becomes permanent, and I peer back into the bubble from afar. Just as utopias can only be imagined from the outside, so this wonder-town will only sharpen when surveyed from an ever-increasing, and increasingly unbridgeable, distance. I can tell how focal this place will one day become for those uncontrollable rays of nostalgia. For now, I have to keep saying that I could take it or leave it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Date with 7/11 (It's Not a Date)

I was reminded yesterday by my time-conscious diary - who seems to contain so much blank space at the turn of the year that you need to pencil in 'breakfast' every morning just to feel its unscripted glare hold a future for you - that it is February 2012. Not even mid-February 2012. Pushing late February 2012. We're at the point where it's no longer valid to wish people happy new year without them calling you premature rather than late. Since I've been hibernating, I wrote 'Happy New Year!' in my diary, just to see what it would say. It asked me whether I had any hot cross buns. A calendar will always be one step ahead.

It also told me in no uncertain terms that I was well overdue for a blog post - so here's the offering in appeasement, the poor substitute for buns. Despite the relatively chaste life of work and worship I've been leading in the last few weeks (good for thinking, bad for generating blog material), the Christmas break was overfull with the blogworthy. Especially given my street level standards of what constitutes the blogworthy. So, dear reader, I ask you to accompany me to the land of the spree - both shopping and shooting: The United States of America. Please purchase a visa waiver for $14 before you start reading. We must ensure readers are poor before they begin, as well as the requisite tired and hungry.

Purpose of the trip was the world's biggest annual congregation of classicists, the APA in Philadelphia (cf. dread in previous post) - or so I told the immigration man, and, hang on, so I should have, because it was true. You can always recognise authority by the way it makes a simple honest statement feel like the baldest, most transparent lie. This titanic congress of social awkwardness took place in salubrious Philadelphia: one time capital of this fine nation, now a proud advertisement for liberal gun laws and robust homicide rates. I have to declare that I'd already accumulated twenty six years worth of negative filters with which to view this vast pile of capitalism. But as we politely descended towards that international airport, I was supercharged by the brown rivers, the heavy iron bridges, the factories belching fire from their crudely oiled bellies. Not that it was beautiful - even though I can be the worst offender when it comes to that particularly middle class habit of 'appreciating' gritty urban decay, experiencing waves for the aestheticised dignity of dilapidation. It was more that this was terrifyingly close to my expectations. I realised that travelling to the States is an inherently sui generis activity precisely because it is so familiar even before you hail that first cab; it's a country of hyper-representation, both in the sense of its disproportionate influence in world affairs, and the ever-ramifying images of itself that are propagated around the world every day. Of course anticipation is always at play, whatever the new place in question. But for most tourists, the flesh-presence of being there and seeing something always releases a gap between imagination and reality: 'I never imagined those pyramids were so big.' The bizarre thing about spying a big American city for the first time in eight years, though, was precisely the lack of gap. Comparing that out there with my mental collection of snapshots, films and television series, it all looked very much in order.

That same hyper-reality, and over-recognition, hit me over and over in the first few hours: big gestures and loud accents made you feel like you had finally realised the childhood fantasy by being sucked from your seat into the screen. Yes, this was the kind of reality where anything extraordinary could happen at the blink of an eye. No more tea and biscuits clattering on a tray beneath a gentle clock ticking in a cosy dark room. Border guards were calling on helicopter back-up to intercept that hundred kilo shipment of pure Colombian strapped to the hairy anuses of ten regular-looking Hispanics. Arnie was about to crash through the airport roof on some kind of large vehicle, lots of anonymous people would be massacred, then he would be driven to lunch in an oversize cadillac to meet the Mayor of Philadelphia and discuss strategies for emission reduction. Not that there was any external evidence for any of these impending events. I just felt all of this would make perverse since in this land's lawless filmic logic. My nipples began twinging towards the nearest plastic surgeon, for suddenly my breasts did not seem big enough.

In the end I was cast as an extra in 2012's American Philological Association Annual Meeting - a big-budget blockbuster requiring four days of on-location presence amid the generic carpets and low light of the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott. As far as academic conferences go, this is the big time of unwieldy, amorphous hustle and bustle. Pick up your name tag and it's all on: try detaining that Professor as she sprints between her panel on Ancient Attitudes to Groping and her important keynote address on The Imagery of Fingernails in Athens and Rome. Collapse on the floor as she palms you off, only to be trampled on by stressed job applicants who can no longer see past their copy of Greek Metre, borrowed in a rush when they began to apprehend the full range of interview horrors and decided that they would better spend their time learning to scan complex lyric metre than grappling with forgotten Greek syntax. We humble paper-givers had it easy by contrast. I turned up at 8.30 on the last morning of the conference, bleared from the free Gin and Tonics of the night past, and read my lines to an audience of seven (four of them were Cambridge pals). The one woman I had hoped to chat to - one of a handful of world experts in the crap bit of Juvenal, and the organiser of my panel - was a no show from sickness. So I walked out of that hallowed Conference Room No. 3 with head held high, thinking that there could have been no greater microcosm of what classics is about, a good chunk of the time: talking at the top of your voice to an empty room, or sitting in an audience so small that you can never be secure in your passivity - maybe you are the one supposed to be talking when that silence inevitably settles. So the classical world keeps turning, one unnoticed allusion to Virgil at a time.

My standard moans about the nitpicking of academia have particular relevance (they always have general relevance) here because the nitpicking helped intensify, indeed formed one end of, the seizure of cognitive dissonance that is travel through the States. One minute I was giving ground over a difficult question on the precise nature of synecdoche in Juvenal; the next I was on the Chinatown bus to New York City, receiving the slobber of tiny children who had escaped their mother's supervision while she blared hip-hop through a tinny smartphone and chimed along with the odd rhyme. This bus was perhaps my favourite more-American-than-America moment of the trip. Revelling in our sacred right to choose from the full range of quality transport options, we chose to neglect the overpriced privatised rail option and opt instead - what exhiliration to opt! - for the only option we could afford: the Chinatown bus, a mode of transport so named because it connects the Chinatowns of the nation's big cities. As I tried to tune out and follow the contours of the New Jersey landscape, flicking eyes back and forth between the fast moving motorway and slow moving factories coughing up phlegm in the dusk of biting winter, I kept feeling sharp, elastic snaps back to my immediate reality. The aforementioned mother, a big black woman who had to economise by booking just one seat for her three small children, would periodically try to restore order in her universe by screaming at her squirming little'uns: 'Shut the FUCK UP!' The outbursts had no discernible relation to the childrens' behaviour: whether they were silent or clamorous, the random interventions came once every few minutes. At one point, the middle-sized boy somehow obstructed her view of her smartphone, and she promptly gave him a hard slap on the face. The most disturbing thing again, however, was the inconsistency and schizophrenia of the situation: now she was tellin' y'all to shut the fuck up, now she was lavishing affection on the youngest and calling him the cutest boy in the world. But what really made things horrible and apocalyptic was the reaction, both mine and that of others. To pass the time between screams and recapture command of reality by digital means, I started writing notes in my iPhone. I looked to the left of me and my neighbour was texting on his own smartphone, writing to invite the sympathy of some distant person: 'One ghetto-ass woman screaming at her kids sure can ruin your trip to New York.' What kind of people were we that this poor woman's predicament impacted on us only enough to seek out thumb exercises and screen deflections? We, all three figures, self-atomised in our backlit realms. The finale of this grim comedy came as the mother signed off a phone conversation with her partner: 'I love you too asshole.' Then, the end-call button pressed, she sat back and chuckled to herself: 'Hehe...muthafucka call me a dickwad.' I remember so clearly because I - self-hating modern man - transcribed the quotation into my iPhone. That domestic drama is now the raw data of the blog post you are reading - feel the implication burn your eyes!

The Big Apple itself was more inviting: its anonymous bosom could be felt out and mapped immediately, based as it was on grids and numbers (two of my favourite things). I spent the usual time taken to acquaint myself with the geometry of a new place in marvelling at the strange sensation of not having to do this. Walking with complete, instant orientation, pinpointing E 85 and 3rd in the mind's eye immediately, Empire State always in the peripheral vision at wide vantage points - it was impossible to get lost! I've never been one for the romanticisation of losing oneself - discovering novel things, cool, but what's wrong with knowing your gps co-ordinates while you do it? So in that respect, NYC was the ideal town for me: freeing the mind of the fear of derailment, sorting you out for other, funner forms of irregularity. If Martin will permit me the use of a weak jazz metaphor to speak of jazz's birthplace, NYC built in the regular changes over which I could improvise. Of course, like my jazz days, this was so humdrumly executed that no one even recognised I was playing a solo. But that didn't matter. I just kept on

For all the performance culture comparisons panting through this post, I ended up cashing out some literal time in the limelight during a play we watched at an East Village (? - can't get lost ey?) theatre one night. The friend with whom I was staying happened to have a happening mum in touch with the experimental theatre side of town, and we scored ourselves some tickets to the show on everyone's collagen-injected lips. The play was a loose 'version' of the Antigone set in Athens 2008, during the aftermath of the death of Alexis Grigoropoulos, a young man shot by police and turned martyr for a generation of sold-out young Greeks. The central point of connection was burial and mourning as radical act in the midst of an establishment bent on sweeping the inconvenient death clear. One of the play's urgent battle cries was for the expression of outrage, protest, resistance - and one of the ways it sought to galvanise the audience was through direct participation. Everyone was invited on stage to join the unchoreographed chorus of angry kicks and jolts - a dance that anyone with working legs could do. After waiting cautiously for other braver souls to get down there first, I too added my small contribution of ungainly thrashes. Whether I'm more politicised since, I couldn't say. Which fact is probably a dead giveaway that I'm not. But it's certainly stuck in my mind as a vivid demonstration of how stupid a feeling embarrassment is, and how easily it dissipates when you start kicking up some air.

So I played a minor role in a modern tragedy - and it would be too easy to write that up as the governing summary for My Time in America. This, both because that behemoth of a nation has so many products in its gigantic supermarket that it defies my classical impulse to stuff it into a good synecdoche; and because when it comes to America, the trip never ends. Next week I'll watch Terminator II for the seventh time and think, fondly: 'Yeah. It really is like that.'