It is hard to believe we were all together less than two weeks ago! I miss you all, our conversations, debates and exchanges, as well as the beautiful light, the heat and buzz of the city. When we were together, everything felt more immediate, more alive, more real somehow. Of course, it must be the contrast to where I have returned to now. This is such a gloomy place, where we are all trapped, muttering to each other through the darkness. The same old gripes, the same false sense of community, the same chains and puppet-masters casting their misleading shadows across the lecture-room. I will bore you with more complaints later, but first me let offer some reflections on what our time together meant and why I wish I could somehow channel what I learned with you to where I am now.
Everything flowed from that opening question: if our group was an artwork, what would it be? I remember writing down that we would be a social sculpture that would be what we made of it over those two days. Working with the community of classicists, artists, curators, critics and translators we did nothing less than elevate the cultural and historical assets of the discipline of Classics. Thinking in this way we paid attention, not only to networks and form, but also to each other, to what we brought to the table and what we were able to teach each other. When one of us spoke of a music of plurality, another would suggest the need for noise and dissonance. We would all talk and laugh together about referencing and captioning, from exhibitions and catalogues to arguments and articles. We lamented the scarcity of attention, celebrated inclusion and diversity and allowed for the artfulness of meaning getting away. One of us would use archaeology, another would reuse myth. We confessed our nostalgia, our feelings, our need for care in these times. To all of these exchanges and debates, we added the excitement of discovering new works and ideas. We saw how democracy can be made of both liquid and dry materials; how we can repair art history with gold; how a book can become a total image; how an ancient myth can be distorted by a female voice speaking today and how to a certain degree sacredness is in the eye of the beholder.
Thinking back to these conversations and images now is especially painful as I look around at the chained bodies around me here. Of course there are many of us here who have grown accustomed to how things are, shuffling about their duties and getting our jobs done, keeping our heads done, waiting for some ultimate end or release. But the ones I worry about the most, especially after what I experienced up there with you, are the more recent arrivals. They came here full of hopes and expectation about what they would learn here, among the wise souls they’d only read about in books. They wanted to be part of the community, learning and teaching as a group, working towards a future in this place (or at least a place like it). Yet slowly but surely, and it happened to some before others, the reality set in. They were among us but were not one of us – they had to prove themselves worthy, their passion, knowledge and dedication was not enough. They would look around at the shadows and make novel conjectures and informed suggestions as to what they were experiencing only to be shut down and told to follow the lessons of the elders, who used the fact that they had been through it all themselves, and knew what it was all about as a way to prevent anything to disturb the gloom. Even though we were all together in the same place, we hardly talked outside of these strict lessons, hardly came together to discuss changes to our shared enterprise. We used to have visitors who would bring news of the world beyond this one, but surely enough, they stopped coming too.
Then things got even worse. One of the more recent among us tried to go outside of the community, to complain to the head puppet-master about the objects that were casting shadows. She addressed them as follows, in a loud, confident voice:
I know that these shadows are the myths that have enthralled and educated generations in this place throughout the ages. I know that in order to understand the ancient world, we have to understand the way they thought about things, which is quite different from the way we think. I know we need to get inside the head of cultures we don’t understand. I know we need to be committed to serious historical inquiry and that it is crucial for us to study legends as a way to interrogate the past. At the same time, while this means encountering many uncomfortable topics, it doesn’t help, or make the historically racist and classist discipline of Classics any more accessible when you, the puppet-masters, make such offensive choices to parade before us. Look at the scene of sexual violence portrayed in that shadow over there to that group of new recruits, why is that the first lesson they encounter here? What does it say about this place that we cannot separate the offensive and sexist images we project ourselves from those of the objects of our discipline? We may not be able to change antiquity, but we can transform our pedagogy, find new models and new methods to teach the past with a sensitivity and solidarity with care for the inequality and violence of the present.
After she had spoken thus, there was a heavy silence. We all sat their waiting for the head puppet-master to respond. Then, all of a sudden, he exploded into a tirade of abuse, calling her names and questioning her place in the community, screaming from his position of security and privilege to anyone who could hear. We all listened in shock, waiting for the furious outburst to subside. We didn’t know where to look. Many of the fellow recent arrivals banded together in support of their outspoken comrade as she suffered, while more senior members of the group simply went about their work, hoping the storm would pass over soon. As time passed and the abuse and silence continued we slowly realized that this would become the new normal in this place unless we all did something together. We needed to speak out as a group against the head puppet-master and his ignorant shadow-lessons, but how could we come together, each with our separate chains, to defend our comrade and ourselves? After this happened, there was no communication between the recent and established prisoners, no boycott of the offensive shadows, not even a discussion taking stock of what had happened. Nothing changed, things returned to normal, but something was broken. We now just wallowed in the virtue of our ignorance and the shadows and our chains stay the same.
As time passed, that was when I thought of you all. I realized that we needed your help. What we all needed down here was some perspective from beyond, from above. We all needed the light of our workshop and, even if we couldn’t stay there, we could at least see that things could be different, that we could make this place better. In short, we needed emancipation, a process of gradual reduction in our present inequality, so that we can become aware of things as they really are. We need to be freed from the stultifying effect of a pedagogy which assumes that students know less than their teachers and must be somehow given knowledge. Instead, what I learned from you was that education should start from the presupposition of equal intelligence between student and teacher, generating a new social relationship between these two groups. And what the artists taught us, especially, was that creating equality is in the doing. But can it be done down here?
I am writing all of this to you so that you know how important those days were with you in the light. I know I cannot return, I must remain here in the darkness. But by writing this to you I feel like I can somehow bring a little of the light with me, to stave off the despair and the darkness of this place that revels in its shadowy ignorance. Send word when you can, we would love to hear from you down here. Would it be too much to hope that perhaps you could make a visit?
Keep well and thank you for everything.