Friday, 17 November 2017

Manspreading Modern & Ancient

I’ve been on a lot planes lately, and so am unusually sensitive to manspreading at the moment. This week I spoke at Policy Exchange, a Westminster Think-Tank, on the enduring relevance of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). I was manspread (manspreaded?) like never before by Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng. I note that I place my hands in a defensive-rampart postition. He also verbally interrupted me, but he wasn't alone in that.

The verb 'manspread' was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2015, but my brief investigations of sitting postures in the history of art suggest that it is not confined to modernity. In Giovanni Belloni's 1514 'Feast of the Gods', for example, poor Amphitrite is wedged between a groping Neptune, and a manspreading Mercury. The satyr in the red cloak behind her looks as though his knees are pressing into her bottom, too. Her straight-ahead gaze suggests she is not enjoying her quince. It's supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I don't think it's working.

More recent pictures of classical deities portray similarly exaggerated manspreading, for example this Hades and Persephone. Her hands are doing what mine were.

My hasty research into sitting etiquette in ancient art today suggested, however, that in ancient times themselves it was by no means as obviously gendered. 


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In  ancient Mespotamia and Egypt, for example, I have only (so far) found depictions of men sitting with their knees considerately together next to women in the identical posture. 

Indeed, the Mesopotamian woman seems to feel able to wedge her knee further into her boyfriend's space than he does into hers. The Egyptian couple look perfectly at ease: mutually touching elbows but legs nowhere near in contact.

The East Pediment of the Parthenon sculptures, probably depicting Dionysos, Persephone and Demeter, suggest that spreading was in Pheidas' day a matter of status:  all the gods, whatever their gender, are letting their knees loll apart regardless of what anyone else thinks. This would cause quite a difficult situation on Easyjet.

And here is Atalanta, admittedly not the kind of girl to be told not to do anything, let alone not to sit like a man. But her refusal to cross her legs or squeeze her knees demurely together doesn't seem to be disapproved of by the artist as a woman sitting like that would be censured today.

My final piece of evidence is the so-called 'Capitoline Triad' of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. It is true that Jupiter has his knees casually apart, but he is not extending either leg into his wife or daughter's space. And they both apparently feel free to sit with their knees relaxed and apart, just like him.

Does this mean that we have actually gone backwards since the Renaissance in terms of sitting etiquette being dictated by patriarchy? I am certainly having a hard time figuring out how to translate 'manspread' into ancient Greek.* 



*[Colleagues have suggested several solutions since I first posted this, including ὀνοσκελίζομαι (Brady Kiesling), the adjectives πανταχογόνατος (Kevin Solez)χαυνόπρωκτος, or διαπεπλιγμένος (Pavlos Avlamis) and new portmanteau verb ἀν(δρ)οίγνυμι (Nirvanya Visnjic)] 












Friday, 10 November 2017

Week of the Unaccountable Oligarchs

A week where the full de-democratisation of Higher Education governance came sharply into focus for me after I watched the brilliant movie Death of Stalin, in which a cabal of unaccountable fellow oligarchs battle it out over control of the Politburo.

Management at our universities often takes no account of what even its most senior academic staff advise, even when they do it in unison. When challenged, as one was challenged by me this week, these unelected ‘leaders’ even admit it, implying that  it is fine for them to take (usually ill-informed) unilateral decisions with far-reaching implications.

What I do not understand is why Senior Leadership Teams and SManagementTs (unaffectionately known as Sluts and Smuts) bother going through the motions of consultation.  It is a sign of the times that I fear to say more because I want to keep my job for a few more years.

"Choice of Hercules", Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton
I often feel guilty that in the 1990s, along with many other academics who might now be in positions of institutional power, I decided against climbing the management pole. I preferred to concentrate on the real business of university life: teaching, research, and communicating with the public. But that was before any of us realised that we were about to be annexed by a new professional Management Class who regard our views as worthless and our consultative procedures a Jurassic inheritance completely at odds with their commercialised concept of education and intellectual labour.

"Hercules and the Hydra", Joseph Kirsch, 1937
I also heard this week from an excellent middle-aged classicist at an English university, a man for whom I write references, that he and one other lecturer have been made redundant as of 30th June 2018. This would be bad enough at the best of times, but in this case he had only recently signed a contract for a full-time continuing post. He had given up some other non-recoverable lucrative teaching contracts in order to accept it. Some administrative cock-up at Management level meant that the financial implications of the appointment were realised in the local Kremlin far too late, and so two individuals’ futures have been abruptly and arbitrarily sacrificed.


I may not be hearing the sound of physical corpses being kicked down the back stairs by the KGB. But the movie seems painfully relevant, and not only to the Tory Cabinet.