Symbolic Implications of my “Underground View” of the 2009 ISCSC Conference
Shortly after attending the 2009 conference of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I was inspired to write an unorthodox and, perhaps, irreverent narrative of what I had experienced. In addition to summarizing the content of papers delivered at the conference, this narrative also included stories about the confusion between the men’s and women’s bathrooms in the student dormitory where conference participants were housed and the primal tension introduced to the conference - in my mind, at least - by the participation of two glamorous women from Russia in an otherwise staid academic event. By no means was this meant to be an objective view of the conference, but strictly my personal view.
I have a sense that my purpose was misinterpreted by some. I did not mean to ridicule the ISCSC, the conference, its organizers, or participants. I also did not mean to treat the Russian women as “sex objects” rather than as the serious academic presenters that they were. Instead, this account of the conference was inspired by my own symbolic interpretation of events - that is, the specific incidents and experiences of the conference viewed through the lens of certain ideas I have about civilization and the human condition.
The first symbolism I wish to suggest is that an organization such as the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations is invested with great respectability. In my scheme of civilizations, universities today assume the role in society which religious institutions once played. They confer dignity on people and give legitimacy to certain desired roles in society. As a result, academic institutions maintain a sense of institutional piety. Serious purposes are to be pursued here. The ISCSC, founded by Arnold Toynbee and other great thinkers of an earlier time, enjoys special prestige as a place where scholars can ponder the world’s various civilizations and the nature of civilization itself.
Combine this idea with the fact that, beneath the veneer of respectable society and association with groups such as the ISCSC, we are all human. We all have certain animal instincts and needs. Never can we rise so high into the stratosphere of lofty discussion about the nature of civilizations and the like that we lose the human vulnerability connected with our own lives. An incongruity of situations is inherent in the lives of intellectuals particularly.
This insight came to me with a vengeance when the car in which Michael Andregg and I were traveling between Kalamazoo and St. Paul, Minnesota, suddenly broke down on Interstate highway 90/94 just south of Tomah, Wisconsin. One moment, we were discussing social and political ideas in the afterglow of a three-day sojourn atop Mt. Olympus. The next moment, we were stranded on the highway, 165 miles away from home, on a Sunday afternoon. It was in the passing lane of the principal highway between Chicago and the Twin Cities, with no shoulder to our left because of construction.
Andregg, being a practical sort, may have known what to do but I felt helpless as a baby. The car was going nowhere. We obviously could not handle the situation ourselves. To our rescue came a truck driver who towed our disabled car to a shoulder on the other side of the highway where it would not block traffic. The emergency relieved, we could now arrange for the car to be towed to a service station in Tomah and be repaired in the next few days.
There was another problem; we needed to return home immediately. Andregg had an obligation to open the gym at St. Thomas College by 6 a.m. the following day. Part of his livelihood depended on the ability to do this reliably. With Andregg’s cell phone, I called a friend in the Twin Cities to ask if there were any tow trucks available at that hour that could deliver Andregg’s car to a repair shop in St. Paul. After learning there were none, the man called back to say that he would pick us up himself. He was on his way.
Here, then, was another miracle. It was a three or four hour drive, each way, between Tomah and St. Paul. But this man, simply to help us in our time of need, was sacrificing a pleasant evening with his family to spend seven hours on the highway so that we could return to the Twin Cities that night. This man works as a maintenance contractor, repairing leaky toilets and the like, rather than in an academic or other position where he might ponder the nature of civilizations. If Andregg and I had an pretensions to intellectual or social superiority, they were completely dispelled by the fact that we were totally dependent upon this man’s kindness in helping us to meet an urgent need. His generosity dwarfed all other considerations.
For a long time I have been interested in the theme of intellectuals (or philosophers) being personally vulnerable because of the peculiar mode of life they had adopted. One of my favorite authors in my college years was the German novelist, Thomas Mann. I remember Mann’s observation that society regarded the artist or writer with deep suspicion as if he were a criminal. In a collection of short stories, Mann describes a young man with pretensions of being a writer (himself) in an unfavorable comparison with a middle-class family man whose wife he secretly covets. At the end, he retreats in shame when their baby lets out a loud cry at his approach. I wrote about this in a term paper for a college course taught by Robert Penn Warren and received a high grade. True intellectuals are not pious about their situation but appreciative of the truth.
No less a person than Plato recognized the vulnerability that intellectuals have. He observed that “anyone who gives himself to philosophy is open to such mockery ... When he is forced to talk about what lies at his feet or is before his eyes, the whole rabble will join the maidservants in laughing at him, as from inexperience he walks blindly and stumbles into every pitfall. His terrible clumsiness makes him seem so stupid.” Thomas Mann wrote that an artistic self-preoccupation makes a person “unsteady, harebrained, and incapable.”
I was therefore inclined to see the “human” side of things when I attended the 2009 ISCSC conference. Yes, the ideas about civilization presented by my fellow participants were interesting and uplifting, but my own thoughts were occupied as well by thoughts of whether my alarm clock would work. One day I discovered it was broken and I was worried that I might not wake up in time to make the morning session that I was scheduled to lead.
Then too, there was the bathroom snafu. Because more men than women were attending the conference, some of us men were put in the women’s wing. The bathroom across the hall from my room was apparently reserved for women even though it had a urinal and the “men’s room” in the other wing of the building did not. I was supposed to walk maybe sixty yards to the other bathroom if the urge struck me in the middle of the night. So I readily accepted someone’s assurances (since retracted) that it was all right to use the facilities across the hall.
There seemed to be no problems with that arrangement for the first two days. Then I heard complaints that some men were using the women’s bathrooms. The moment of truth came when I entered the bathroom across the hall and saw one of the Russian women, the younger one, staring at me. I chose to regard all this as comedy, but others may have viewed it differently.
That takes us then to the presence of those two women at the conference. I first became aware of them at Dr. Targowski’s presentation. A well-dressed woman sitting several rows in front of me was recording the scene with a video camera. I had never seen this before at ISCSC conferences. Scholars of civilization are print-base people, often deficient in their knowledge of electronic communication technologies. But here was an unfamiliar woman with a video camera. And she was from Russia of all places.
Through most of my life, I have been accustomed to associating Russian society with a print-based culture. A Soviet leader such as Leonid Brezhnev would read a written statement to a plenary session of the Communist Party. Their wives wore unfashionable clothing. Meanwhile, in the United States, we had moved into the electronic culture of the entertainment age with photogenic leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan who had glamorous, well-dressed wives. After the Soviet Union fell, Reagan explained the situation in this way: “Our computer technology left them bewildered and behind, paper societies in an electronic age.”
Being a student of civilizations, I am aware of themes prevalent at the beginning of an epoch being reversed by the end. After the Soviet Union fell, the Russian people went through the economic fire. But then they emerged in a cultural springtime - a new and more sensuous type of culture where the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was photographed bare chested and held a judo black belt and where the women were fashion-minded. Standing in front of me in an assembly of paper readers were two such women, well-dressed and coiffured, taking video pictures of us, frumpy middle-aged scholars. It would be an understatement to say that they turned my head, both as a man and a student of civilizations.
I was fortunate to have attended their session which was about religious training in Russian schools. This was one of the more significant presentations at the conference, signaling a shift in the Russian culture, perhaps with government backing. The women suggested then that my wife and I might be invited to attend a conference in Kemerovo, a Siberian city where their school is located. The invitation never came.
So let me say that it was with no disrespect that I called them “beautiful women” in my underground report on the conference. I was merely being aware of the incongruities when sensually appealing women invade an academic conference and, especially, when they bring video cameras and afterwards drive away in a limousine. A straightforward report of the conference proceedings would not have caught this. That’s why I wrote my “underground” report.
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