16th April

There are a few maverick exceptions that luxuriate in breaking this stifling politeness. Theses modes of barbed response - most often masculine in character - either take the form of bad tempered intellectual tantrums ("I just have to say that you are all fundamentally wrong") or the reproachful sermons from those who see themselves as the Defenders of the Discipline and its founding Great Men. In the latter case, such intellectual knights play to the conference gallery which is either enchanted or merely entertained by such charismatic certainties and yet they often define their discipline in such tight and exclusive ways that membership of this club is limited to themselves.

In 2009 conference etiquette was rudely interrupted by Russian artist Alexander Brener who staged his forms of extreme curating at academic events at Goldsmiths. The rumour around the college was that during a cultural studies seminar on 'The Knowlege Economy and the Future of Capitalism', he dropped his trousers, defecated in a cup, placed it on the table where the speakers were sitting and said, quoting Agamben, "There - that's 'bare life'"! It was said that murmurs went around the room, "call the police" but this was quickly ruled out - "you can't call the police to a cultural studies seminar". Then, re-establishing the decorum of conference etiquette, those assembled just carried on regardless. Actually, it turned out later that this stunt was less than a live event and in fact the poop had been pre-prepared.

Soon after at another event at which I was present one of Brener's associates piped up at the end of a long technical philosophical discussion between Andrew Benjamin and Scott Lash on Agamben's The Time That Remains. "You are all quite wrong about what Agamben meant," she said scolding the philosophers and theory students. "I know this," she continued, "because he was my lover..."


Perhaps such pranks could only happen in the art school environment of Goldsmiths but even then the scatological shock value soon becomes cliché. The lesson here is that we should think more about presenting our ideas and research as forms of performance and this is not just a matter of being more theatrical.

Rather, it makes us think about how we convey our ideas and use our voices. I remember organizing a conference where an experienced and eminent academic gave a presentation where the large audience that had gathered could barely hear what she had to say. This was because she pointed the microphone towards the audience rather than holding it close to her mouth. One of the attendees from a London based theatre group came up to speak to me after the session. She attended the event because her company was developing an idea for a production on the theme of the conference. After the session she asked gently: “Do academics get any voice training?” It was a telling question because we don’t really think about our voices as our most fundamental medium for communicating our ideas.

I know when I am nervous I have an unfortunate habit of putting my index finger on my top lip. It was only after seeing myself lecture on YouTube that I realised I did this unconsciously. The problem is when I do this my voice is reduced to a mumble and disappears like I am whispering a secret to myself. Although watching myself present was a painful experience, I learned a lot about the things I needed to change about how to present better. It’s worth trying, even though watching yourself present on screen is perhaps the most cringingly awkward to do.

In my time as Dean of the Goldsmiths Graduate School I saw students experimenting




19 April