Forget the Footnotes

Transgression, here I come

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I’m off to Taiwan next academic year, as professor at the Center for Social and Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University. There I’m going to give a course on transgression, on the crossing of borders — geographical borders, cultural, moral and psychological. This seems appropriate given the transgredi I’ll be making.

There is a lot of great stuff to read on this topic — from Euripides onwards, and it integrates literature, politics, culture and history. Why is it that people want to cross to other sides? Where is the “side” and what happens at the “border”? What are they planning to do once they get there? How can you understand what you come across in this alien land? And how can you understand yourself once you have transgressed?

The yearning for transgression is supposed to be dead in our age of market-based rationality. Yet it’s everywhere — in films, music, drug culture, religious prophecies, porn flicks off the web. This after all is what we spend most of our time and money on. Transgression is about violence too, about wars, and the U.S. and the U.K. invading Iraq.

Of course this is politics and of course it is relevant, but equally obviously I could never teach a course on something like this at the LSE. The LSE has only heard about Apollo, never Dionysus. In fact, it’s just about as Apollonian an institution as one ever will come across. This all-pervading cult of the expert, the talking head, with his data and his graphs!

I was never an expert, never featured in the LSE rent-an-expert catalogue. I was never sure enough of myself and never serious enough; always convinced that what is might not be. Yet this is clearly not good enough. As an expert you have to be literal-minded and pretentious. How else can you speak to poor and ignorant people with authority and tell them what to do? How else can you motivate your own position and the money you are charging for your advice?

Meanwhile Dionysus is calling to us from the mountains to come and join his drunken and frenzied crew. I hear him clearly and so do poor and ignorant people around the world. No surprise even the most carefully laid out of the expert’s plans often comes to nothing.

talking head, LSE employee


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