This text is a part of a travelling conversation

Everything is a conversation, and it is the world we inhabit. – Tim Ingold

Outside my window, the day has begun. Sun reaching above the rooftops, attempting to burn through the hazy, diffuse clouds covering the vaulted sky this morning. In the distance, fir-trees dancing happily in the wind. A greeting from the edge of the forest.

I’m starting my second cup of Darjeeling & Earl Grey tea. Sitting at my writing desk, candle burning at my side. As I write, we are a few weeks into the pandemic now sweeping the world. I’ve been working from home for some time now. Perhaps this is a strange time to be writing about sustainable academic cultures. Or perhaps not.

As I read the essay by Sachiko, my mind travels back in time. I am somewhere in France, in the late 1960s. I think of the unusual collaboration and friendship that developed between philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guatarri. Felix would wake up and write first thing in the morning. He would then send off his text to Gilles – unrevised and unpolished. Gilles would rework and rewrite it. Every Tuesday afternoon they would then meet to discuss the weeks’ work*.

Guided by my minds eye, I travel further back in time. On a dirt-road outside the town of Basel, a man is riding along on his horse. The year is 1501 and wave upon wave of the Black Plague is rolling in across Europe. Paris and other large cities are starting to empty. The man’s name is Erasmus, and he is fleeing from the deathly shadow of the plague, but also seeking something – always seeking. But he is also embodying an ideal that he firmly believed in: that movement and new encounters was essential for anyone interested in learning about the world. Or creating the world, for that matter, as he believed that conversations is what makes the world come into being**.

Going further back in time. 450 years before the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was born. Athens, Greece – so called Ancient Greece. At the time however, it was of course just Greece (or Hellas rather) – in full colors, and most real. As a plague haunts the doorsteps of Athenians, Socrates is engaged in deep conversation with his teacher, Aspasia of Miletus. Their conversation is later retold by Plato*** in his Symposium, with Aspasia thinly disguised under the pseudonym of Diotima****. Socrates recounts:

‘But how then, Diotima,’ I said, ‘are the lovers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the foolish?’

‘A child may answer that question,’ she replied; ‘they are those who are in a mean between the two; Love is one of them. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant.’

Philosophers as lovers, as interpreters and intermediaries between the divine and the mortal – neither wise nor ignorant. For how many Doctors of Philosophy of today does this image hold true? What might this dialogue on love have to teach us about the times we now live in… with another ‘plague’ at our doorstep and with climate change and species extinction looming heavily on the horizon?
I have not yet come to know such a thing as a sustainable academic culture. But perhaps these glimpses into the past could be thought of as fingers pointing at the moon, if not the moon itself. And with friendships and unusual rituals; movement and new encounters; and timely conversations about love – we might just get a little closer.

Isak Stoddard, written March 2020, published here March 2021

A response to this will be published next week on Tuesday the 30th of March:

Week 13: Encounters in Pandemic academia, Lakin Anderson

* Thornton, E. (2018). Two’s a crowd. Aeon magazine.

**Burton, N. (2016). p. 43, Gutenberg-Galaxens Nova – En essäberättelse om Erasmus av Rotterdam, humanismen och 1500-talets medierevolution. Albert Bonniers Förlag, Stockholm.

***Plato. (385-370 BC). Symposium. Translated by J. Bowett. Project Gutenberg Ebook.

****D’Angour, A. (2019). Socrates in love: how the ideas of this woman are at the root of Western philosophy. The conversation.