Sunday 28 September 2014

Should Anonymous Peer Review be Abolished?

The Welcoming Rio Classics Dept.   
Mid-week consisted of a mad dash to Rio de Janeiro to an enormous congress on disputes and face-offs in antiquity. It seemed an unlikely topic for the most well-balanced bunch of people I have encountered for ages:  Laughing over Dinner in Antiquity would have been a more apt theme. Not that I didn’t get challenged by a couple of shrewd critics after my lecture. But I love this part of my job—open disagreement, expressed with civility, between people brave enough to attach their identities to their views.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers
Academia’s Sacred Cow is Anonymous Peer Review, or secret reports/ references read behind closed doors. This creaky system means academics are all repeatedly stabbed in the back by masked assassins when their article is rejected by a journal, or their grant/promotion application rubbished. The result is completely unnecessary paranoia and toxic bad feeling when they speculate (often incorrectly) on the identity of the incognito saboteur. In a small subject like Classics it also means that you have inevitably been covertly coshed by a close colleague, a former lover, or someone envious of you.

Prof. Paul Cartledge
My belief that APR is damaging and obsolete was reinforced at the second conference of the week, a celebration of my role model and hero Paul Cartledge, retiring Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge. His successor Tim Whitmarsh gave a dazzling keynote, on an ancient Greek called Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who even 2,000 years ago knew all about Peer Review (although this was NOT what Prof. Whitmarsh was arguing--what follows is my personal response). Dionysius described the five types of professional opponents who  criticised his work:

1) Inveterate nit-pickers.
2) People ignorant of the material under discussion.
3) People whose criticisms depended on unverified rumour and assumptions.
4)  Malicious personal enemies who want to damage him.
5) People in an opposing ideological camp who will automatically oppose everything he says.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers who today sabotage other academics’ work fall into precisely Dionysius’ categories. I would add only one further: the egomaniac who complains the author hasn’t cited their own scholarship, however irrelevant.

I NEVER write a review or reference I would not be happy to see made public with my name on the bottom. I just don’t see that anonymity is helpful. Why not stick papers, CVs etc. up freely online and invite (non-anonymised) comments? If people are ashamed to have their views made public, in what universe is it professional to express them? My other great discovery this week, for my Classics & Class project, has been Mary Bridges Adams, a working-class classicist turned activist who in July 1915 complained about a critic who signed himself simply N.D. and constantly attacked her in print. She wrote in the Cotton Factory Times,

Let me beg of my opponents to reveal their identity. I hope N.D. will set the others an example, and let me know precisely who he is. Being a Welsh-woman I do not shrink from a fight, but I like to see ‘my foe-man’s face.’ 

I suspect Bridges Adams got the last phrase from the Iliad, where warriors with integrity like Achilles would not dream of attacking someone like a coward, anonymously, and there is a special term for proper, non-anonymised combat. And although I am not Welsh I couldn’t agree with her more. 

Saturday 20 September 2014

The Scottish Colossus of Roads


Alex Salmond’s best line in the Independence campaign was to remind those who questioned the Scots’ competence to run an economy that Adam Smith, 'Father of Modern Economics' and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), was born in Fife. Other influential Scots could be produced as evidence of that nation’s historic contribution in any field of endeavour.

Take the Colossus of Roads. This was the unofficial title bestowed on John Loudon McAdam, who dominated the world of road technology in the late 18th and 19th centuries and is here caricatured in a famous print by Henry Heath. Heath drew both on his viewers’ stereotypes of Scots and on their knowledge of the lost colossal statue of the Sun which the Sun-worshipping Rhodians of the third century BC erected in their harbour to celebrate the defence of their island from Macedonian strongmen.

'Colossus of Rhodes' by Maerten van Heemskerck (1570)
The reason why the road you walk/drive/cycle/sit in a bus on is neither a Pleistocene mud-bath in winter nor a dust-bowl in summer, as in the two roads leading to the left and right of the cartoon, is McAdam. His innovation was to use several layers of very small stones, bound with a cementing agent, to form a crust; provided the road was built above the water table, it did not need to be raised above the pre-existing path nor be given a steep camber.

Road Obsessive
McAdam was born 258 years ago today in an Ayrshire castle. He was incredibly famous and his name became synonymous with inventions of any kind. He was also a monomaniacal obsessive, who spent his entire life and his personal fortune developing his revolutionary technology.  In 1827 his efforts and expenditure paid off: he was appointed General Surveyor of Roads and given a government pay-out of £10,000. The 1827 cartoon here, through the word ‘mock’ and the money-bags he clutches, implies that the expenses he claimed were not entirely legitimate.

Worked literally to death
The cartoon's pictured windmill, ‘Breakstone Mill’, is comically threatening to raise his kilt. Beneath him sit two poor labourers, for the small size of the stones McAdam roads used (they had to be small enough to fit in the worker's mouth) had exponentially increased the work required. Road-making swiftly became associated with the legal sentence of Hard Labour. Henry Wallis’ tragic Stonebreaker (1857)in Birmingham City Art Gallery, was sometimes entitled ‘Helotage’, thus comparing the tragic road-labourer to a helot, an abused slave in ancient Sparta. McAdam used his brain and fortune well, but that did not prevent technological progress in the industrial revolution from coming at a terrible human price. 

Saturday 13 September 2014


"Who am I? Why am I here?"

 This week has brought a flood of enquiries about caryatids resulting from the photos from the tomb near Amphipolis. What are caryatids and why should the relatives of a rich dead Macedonian choose caryatids to hold up a lintel on the tomb?

Persian Bull
Figures of animals and humans had been used earlier by Egyptian and Persian architects to support imperial roofs. I personally would rather have a bull on my tomb, please, like this one from Darius' building project at Susa, than a caryatid. When Persian art used human figures to do load-bearing work, they were people who had been subjected to the Persian empire. 

Down-at-heel Caryatids at home in Karyes 
Caryatids take their name from the town of Karyai (now Karyes), in the central Peloponnese, which featured a sanctuary and famous statue of Artemis. Karyai means Nuts, or sometimes specifically walnuts or hazelnuts. A Karyatis (plural Karyatides) means 'maiden dancing the nut-tree dance' or a 'nut-tree priestess'.  They did a special dance for Artemis with baskets of nuts on their heads, which may have given an architect the idea to put roofs on their heads instead. But you can dance with a basket on your head. A temple roof is a different matter.

The Roman architect Vitruvius said the origin of the caryatids was much more tragic. The people of Karyai had treacherously sided with the Persians when they invaded. So after the war the other Greeks punished them by executing the men and enslaving the women. The Women of Karyai are not dancing maidens but matrons, he says, doomed to perpetual labour and unfreedom.

Artemis is often associated with death rites and mysteries, which might illuminate her priestesses' presence in funerary art. The most famous caryatids are those in the porch of the Athenian Erectheion, the shrine housing the dead hero-king Erechtheus (five are in Athens; one stands in lonely isolation from her sisters far away in the British Museum). They have inspired countless imitations and adaptations the world over from ancient times, often rather uncomfortably expressing pride in imperialist ventures.

Hans Walther's sad Caryatids, Oppressed by Capital, in Erfurt
My own favourite are the saddest of all.  Their hunched bodies support the entire weight of the capital accumulated in the Savings Bank in Erfurt, central Germany. They are the work of the sculptor Hans Walther, in the idiom of the ‘New Objectivity’ or ‘New Resignation’ (Neue Sachlichkeit) which had been developed in the Weimar Republic: Erfurt is only a few kilometres from Weimar itself. One well-fed capitalist on the left feeds himself from his well-loaded plate, while the other worker–women and men, young and old, are dejected, worn down, and hungry.

So are the new Amphipolis caryatids joyous maidens performing a dance in celebration of the nut harvest, enslaved traitors of their nation, symbols of Macedonian imperialism, ostentation and greed, or simply conventional stone guardians of the dead available for commission in any ancient funeral parlour?  This is what makes antiquity fun: it's up to each one of us to decide.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Woman-Hating Ranters Ancient & Modern

On the London train to run a conference on an ancient poet called Palladas, whose witty epigrams include several bitching about women, I chose an empty seating area for ten. I needed to finish my paper. At the next station I was joined by six raucous men returning from a stag night. 

They kept up a stream of misogynist ranting for an hour. In ancient Greece there was a genre of invective listing alleged female vices, a genre which I mistakenly believed had become obsolete. The most famous example, by Semonides, compares women with animals. It begins with the pig-woman, “a hairy sow, whose house is like a rolling heap of filth; she lies around, unwashed, on the shit-pile, growing fat.” Semonides advocates violence against the talkative dog-woman and the dense ass-woman who enjoys food.

My Fellow Passengers 
My fellow passengers had revived this ancient genre. They went through the Sun, Metro, and other journals, criticising every pictured woman, from teenagers opening exam results to the Home Secretary. Each was labelled a slag, a dog, a bushpig [this one was new on me], a hottie, gagging for it, or a ballbreaker. A vote was taken on whether each woman deserved the honour of “a good seeing to.”  

Semonides of Amorgos
I am not easily shocked. I ignored them and continued to write my comments on Palladas’ 1600-year-old epigram, “A woman is only good on two occasions: dead or in bed”.  But it became apparent that George, the most hungover stag, was Greek. He earned derision from the stags for saying he had to go home and take turns looking after his three-year old daughter before rejoining the testosteronefest in a Fulham pub. Who, they asked scoffingly, "wore the trousers" in George’s house?

I asked George, in Greek, if he would like either his mother or his daughter to hear him in conversation with his friends. He blushed deeply and told them to cool it. They did not stop, but George did, and looked embarrassed for the rest of the journey.

So what had happened here? Perhaps I am a humourless party-pooper. Perhaps some men just assume it is acceptable to talk like that in public or in front of females. Or is that since I am too old to be in the category of meriting “a good seeing-to”, I am effectively invisible? Or were the stags actually trying to provoke me into a reaction? If so, did they want to be told off by a middle-aged lady—perhaps spanked?—or get into a wrangle?  

Being outnumbered one/six may have played a part in the chemistry of the situation. Certainly, once I established an individual relationship with one of them in a language the others couldn’t understand, so they couldn’t collectively combat me, he instantly reverted from Palaeolithic Man to a reasonable modern human.

A Symposium: arena for misogynist ranting
Long ago, when I briefly worked in Cardiff docks managing thirty-six tug-boat crewmen, I persuaded them to take down the topless “page 3” pictures festooning the office by putting photos of naked men on another wall. They said it was disgusting. Women could, I suppose, fight back by forming vigilante groups who roam public transport cackling noisily about all the men in the newspapers. When I retire, I may form a granny-gang to do so. If anyone would like to join me, get in touch in about 2026.