Strictly Platonic


I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few good congregations recently and something of a running theme has cajoled me once again into the blogosphere. The first was ‘Digital Heritage in the New Knowledge Environment: Shared Spaces & Open Paths to Cultural Content‘ hosted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens. Following that, I managed to make half of the TEI and CRM-SIG meetings in London.

The former was a real eye-opener in a lot of ways. My background is in theatre, philosophy and archaeology, so I’ve always assumed Athens was pretty much built for me. Fortunately it didn’t disappoint. If sitting on top of the Areopagus at sundown with a couple of tinnies can’t bring the philosopher out in you, your days have run their course. The National Museum is a candy box of eye-popping archaeological delights (shame about the website), and, well I guess I’ll just have to take in a show next time.

The conference itself was one of the most stimulating I’ve attended in a while. As a mixture of Greek cultural heritage professionals and a more international group of invited digital specialists, the division between open and closed world views was starkly drawn. Inspired by the location to draw a gratuitous athenian analogy, I dubbed the competing factions the ‘new platonists’ and the ‘new socratics’. The platonists hold the view that there is some kind of objective value in culture that needs to be identified, nurtured and above all protected from the more philistine elements of globalistion. This can only be done by an elite professional class of curators (priests?) and academics (philosophers?). Meanwhile, the socratics see our role as entirely different – it is not our duty to protect, but rather to provoke, undermine and play with the narratives and interpretations we all normally take for granted.

Of course, we are all a mixture of both these tendencies, but depending on context one side or the other tends to play out. I was flying the flag of the socratics on this occasion, but similar arguments were levelled in excellent papers by (in no particular order) Stuart Eve, Eric Kansa, Stefano Costa, Kostas Arvanitis, Anna Simandiraki, Gregory Paschalidis and Christos Galanis. On the other side we heard about the need to protect culture from ‘globalisation’, the danger of putting archaeological data online where the public can see it (DVD is the preferred medium because you can make it look like a book), and the honest, and difficult, question as to whether countries with deeply contested histories can risk supporting multicultural perspectives in public museums.

Some interesting (and unexpected) light was thrown on that question by Greg Crane at the TEI meeting. The answer to the question ‘who is the most important classicist of the 20th Century?’ is arguably: The Ayatollah Khomeini. Prior to the 1979 revolution he was a political philosopher specialising in the Athenian philosophers. Apparently the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the name implies, is founded largely on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Can it be that the strongest argument against the greatest defence of paternalism in history is that same theory played out for real? The following day at the CRM-SIG, Greg raised the other big question close to my heart – How can we ask the big questions of Antiquity? We are finally in an era when our research is no longer limited to the amount that a human being can read (and recall) in a lifetime. The information deluge and the tools developed to deal with it have completely changed the ballgame. I would add that not only must we start to ask new questions but we can no longer answer the old ones. In the Googlepoch information is produced too quickly, and the gaps in our knowledge are too apparent, for us ever to feel completely sure of ourselves again.

And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

PS A recent blessay on language by Stephen Fry captures the spirit of what I mean far better than I ever can.