Wednesday, 22 April 2015

IDEA at Inönü University, Malatya 3:
Travelling exotics and simulacra

Berkan con guitar

Berkan Ulu, who was kind enough to invite me, picks me up at the hotel in a borrowed car. It is very good to see him. He had spent a semester at UEA some years ago where I befriended him and we kept in touch. We chat on the way in. He says I haven't aged. He certainly hasn't. He looks as boyish as ever. It's a respectable drive from hotel to university which is on a campus with great gates. Downstairs in the entrance hall there are two tables with books and programmes. The angels stand and serve, smiling, pleased to see us. And there is Susanne Klinger whom I first met - again briefly - at UEA where she was doing her PhD. Now she is teaching here.

Lunch is in a big hall described as the ball room. Is there dancing in it now? Perhaps there was once. Large circular tables seat some six or seven. As usual, I know no-one, but sit down with Susanne where I see a space at the same table where Ian Galbraith is sitting. I have only once met Ian and that rather briefly at a Sebald event in Norwich. He lives in Germany so we are unlikely to run in to each other too often.

My keynote is written (I will post the text at the end of this Malatya series) so I don't need to prepare for anything but I do intend to be alert. First I have to wake up. I have my notebook, as supplied by Inönü, I make conversation as we all do.

Conversation might be good or it might be difficult. I am highly aware that this is the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli of which we will, understandably, hear a lot, including a full discussion and poems at a book launch, but also that it is, at the same time, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian massacre (or, of course, genocide depending on where you stand - the UN calls it genocide) of which we will, understandably, hear little or nothing. I haven't come here to say anything about either but will listen with curiosity.

I am immediately sorry to have missed Ian's keynote as others mention it with pleasure. I hope mine might go well. But it's straight back to the Grand Hall for three papers, one on Rose Macauley's The Towers of Trebizond (I am still waking up through this one) followed by one on the travels of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her experience of a hammam, this being compared to a similar account by a male traveller. The title is fascinating in itself, taken directly from Wortley Montagu, A Spectacle which would Make a Hundred Painters Drop their Brushes in Astonishment. It will remain my favourite title of the week. Naturally there is reference to Ingres and other orientalising painters. And of course there is a feminist perspective, feminism being the basis of many papers, even more than post-colonialism. It is beautifully constructed by Julia Szoltysek so it works as both argument and art.

The third paper is by US Professor of Rhetoric, Sarah Orgun-Perrault. It is set in terms of rhetoric but its subject is trust. How far should we trust scientists when they are explaining things to the public? Should we ask whether a scientist is being supported by an industry that might influence the scientist's position. There is the relationship between the specialist and the specialism, there is the trust between the scientist and the scientific community and there is the relation of both to the third term: the public. Sarah is arguing for scepticism about scientists claiming to reassure the public on behalf of their own commercial interests. There is always a cui bono question, of course. Whose interests does a professional opinion serve?

My slight unease with this line of argument is that it is based on an assumption of bad faith on one side only (the good side may be, indeed it is in this case, my side, which - oddly enough - troubles me more). The trouble is that the other side simply reverses the bad faith argument and addresses it in terms of personal integrity. an integrity which they presume to possess. I can't help feeling that if we attribute all good to one side and all bad to the other we abandon argument altogether. The other side may think just the same of you. To my somewhat idealistic cast of mind it would be better to assume that the other person is acting from genuine convictions but is wrong. Then we try to prove him or her wrong.

Yes, but has always been my instinct. It gets me into trouble sometimes, especially with my own side in so far as it is a side rather than a view. On the other hand I am pretty sure that it's the yes but in me that has made me a poet.


There is a very good set of papers after coffee on the idea of truth in biography and memory generally, centering on Baudrillard's argument about simulacra, the idea that we live in a world of copies that we take for the real world.

There are two particularly interesting papers on Julian Barnes's book England, England where a rich businessman buys up the Isle of Wight and turns it into a theme park based on received ideas of England. In Barnes's hands this turns into a political fable with commercialism at its core. How far can a nation sell itself? The date of the book, 1998, is not discussed but it occurs to me that it will have been written the year before, the year of the election that brought Tony Blair and New Labour to power and saw the death of Princess Diana whose funeral represented - or seemed to represent - a crisis point for the monarchy. If one could have had a simulacrum of Princess Diana in 1997 one would have made a fortune. (But was she, in her way, already a simulacrum of herself, I wonder).

These are clever papers by Elzem Nazli and Yigit Sümbül, arguing along similar Baudrillardian lines. There is a reality somewhere, goes the argument, but the simulacrum has taken its place. Something (England / the empire?) has hollowed out. There is of course a clear political reading available: vested interests exert their power by leading us away from reality towards an alternative version that seems still more real while going about their wicked business.

And it's true, it's only that I have a problem with ideas like reality and authenticity. I suspect they too are constructions. I recall the chicken tikka masala argument of some years ago. This most popular of dishes in England is a fake, not a real Indian dish. I understand that but the assumption that if we only looked hard enough in a particular village, down a particular street, behind a particular door, in a particular kitchen, in a particular pot we would find an authentic ur-dish that we may call reality seems a little fake in itself.

But who cares and who knows? I don't. The papers are exciting and invite discussion especially from John Stotesbury, Professor of Everything in Finland, who was actually born on the Isle of Wight. He is an echt Vectian. In order to make England England you have to kick the locals out. He is reality in the flesh. Take that, Baudrillard!

Then we drive away away, down winding roads, rising among hills to the Kalegöl Hotel overlooking the lake produced by the dam. It is spectacular. The sun is setting. It is spectacular. I spend time talking to Susanne. The evening is fading into night for me. I need more sleep.

At Kalegöl

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

This morning the BBC World news led with Gallipoli and the Armenian massacre. I don't know why the Turks don't just apologise so that everyone can move on. I agree with you that entrenched opinions are almost never 100% right or wrong.

Best wishes from Simon r. Gladdish