Dangerous Things

It was meant to be a university in perpetual motion, a university that would never succumb to complacency, a university never destined for middle-age. But that was then…

Now a stunning new campus is proposed, and a radical restructure, as Sparkes-Orr struggles to re-establish for itself some sense of a coherent identity. While some are pushing for change, others yearn for the freedom of the university’s ’Golden Age’. 

Dangerous Things traces the fortunes of three characters during three years of turmoil in the now middle-aged Sparkes-Orr University. Li-Li is a student working her very original path through the Bachelor of Arts, and battling her over-privileged upbringing; Godwin is an Englishman downunder, a lecturer in history, juggling an old-school passion for the Enlightenment with postmodern romantic entanglements; and Alain is a professor of philosophy trapped in the leadership of their dysfunctional faculty, but determined to mine the situation for philosophical insights.

Dangerous Things is a novel about ideas – big ideas, novel ideas, old ideas, ideas that defy reason, others that seem to defy gravity – at the heart of which is the individual’s journey.

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extracts from chapters 2, 3 & 4

Godwin Godfree looks out of the train window at the farmland flashing past and draws comfort from it. In its anonymity and transience, he sees an analogy for his own situation. He has suffered two bewildering interviews, in which indifferent academics rambled on about ‘diversity’ and ‘pathways’ and ‘workloads’ and ‘equity’ and the doctrine of ‘continuous improvement’, and he has nothing to show for it. He has tried to impress them with his University of Edinburgh credentials and he has failed. They showed barely a flicker of interest in the University of Edinburgh, what they were really interested in was his teaching experience. He doesn’t have much. So that’s it. Short-listed for the university medal, a doctorate and a post-doc at the University of Edinburgh, but Downunder, that all counts for nothing.

The self-indulgence of the slighted scholar doesn’t last. though. By the time he arrives at the Hilltops Campus of Sparkes-Orr University, he has recovered his earlier optimism. It seems to be a better university than the others, so he imagines a rather different situation – an interview in which he will give a accomplished account of himself before a group of thoughtful and intelligent academics and be rewarded, (justly, he is tempted to think), with the offer of a Lectureship in History. This unwarranted optimism now makes him anxious.

He looks at his watch. They are late. He has looked at his watch several times already. He has even opened the letter of advice just to make sure that the time and place are exactly as he remembers. But they are late and their lateness deepens his anxiety. In the foyer of the McManus Building, glossy displays proclaim Sparkes-Orr University to the world, and Godwin turns to them now, pretending to examine them conscientiously, all he can think to do with this parcel of time that has unexpectedly arrived.

Veritas Omnia Vincit. Truth conquers all. There is a certain nineteen-twenties flavour to the university crest. Two stylised figures in academic gowns, Art Deco-like, tall and slim, hands touching as their outstretched arms rest on the top of a shield that depicts a book open against the backdrop of a rural landscape, two hills with three trees on the horizon. They look languid, these two scholars, gazing dreamily into the distance, and, despite their gowns and trenchers, they are less suggestive of academia than of the leisure class. Godwin imagines them with long cigarette holders in place of their rolled-up testamurs.

Beneath the crest, the contemporary university asserts itself. In large bold font, it declares its commitment to EXCELLENCE, LIFELONG LEARNING and SUSTAINABILITY, and holds out the promise for students of a GLOBAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE. Underneath, in much smaller text, the university acknowledges the Wada Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the land on which it sits.

On the next panel, Godwin discovers that Sparkes-Orr had twice been awarded University of the Year, that it is ranked fourteenth out of forty for Overall Student Satisfaction, that, in the latest research rankings, it is World Standard for a dozen fields, (including Philosophy and History!), and that it has just been awarded a grant to develop a Happiness Profile of Regional Australia. The Minister for Regional Affairs is scheduled to visit as a consequence.

Then a soft voice is calling his name. Dr Peta Starc has arrived to rescue him.

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Back in the Faculty of Arts, the newly-anointed Acting Dean of Arts slips upstairs to inspect his new quarters. It might have been useful for the outgoing Dean to run through arrangements with him, but Motherwell had packed up so quickly, there had not been time for the proper farewell. The period of collegiate mourning had only run a week, when Professor Motherwell suddenly departed, taking his bruised and battered ego with him.

And, now it seems, most of the furniture. Alain Iser steps through the doorway to an almost empty office. The bookshelves are still mounted on the walls but the books are gone, and the chairs and the couches and the oval table he’d sat any number of times – a plain English oak table he rather liked – have vanished as well. The empty office is hardly recognisable, and it certainly doesn’t suggest ‘authority’. With the furniture gone, Iser is only too aware of the awkward proportions of the room – too long and thin, with windows that don’t seem to belong in it.

It had been the Faculty of Arts library back in the early days when each faculty had its own library. Later, when they were absorbed into the one building in the interests of interdisciplinarity, the old Arts library had been cut up. This half had become the Dean’s office. Iser had been quite content as a junior academic working in the Arts library, but he couldn’t imagine nutting through a difficult question in this space.

Only the big old oak desk is still there. But it’s been emptied. There aren’t even any pens left. He will have to order more pens. That is just ridiculous. Why would Motherwell take the pens? Paper clips, pads, things academics hardly used anymore anyway, all gone. Considering it from another position, though, Iser thinks he can understand. The office, one had to imagine, has been the scene of an excruciating trauma for the outgoing Dean, the brutal end of his long career. Could there be anything worse? Perhaps emptying the office had been necessary – a purge, cleansing the office of its ghosts, so the new occupant could start afresh, and as the new occupant, perhaps Alain Iser should be grateful for the absence of pens. But another thought persists – had Motherwell been so bitter that he nicked the furniture and even the bloody pens?

One of the drawers is locked. Iser tugs at it.

What are you doing?’

Vivian Albright, the former Dean’s secretary has entered silently, her footsteps noiseless on the carpeted floor.

‘The Acting Dean of Arts is inspecting his new premises, Mrs Albright.’

He holds up the keys as verification. And he smiles at her, a gesture that predictably goes unrewarded. Not for nothing is Vivian Albright known as ‘The Glacier’. Her icy temperament and obstinacy made her the perfect front of house for the former Dean of Arts, keeping at bay students and staff alike, regardless of the urgency of their issues. Does she come with the job? Iser certainly hopes not! Glacier is the wrong word, though. She is obstinate, yes, but never slow-moving. She is actually quite sharp.

You, Professor?’

‘That is why I am poking around in the office, Mrs Albright. My office, now.’

‘It appears Professor Motherwell has made off with most of your furniture.’

Iser shrugs. ‘Not my furniture, Mrs Albright. I am Dean of Arts for just a short time. It wont be a problem. And the new Dean of Arts will probably bring his own furniture. Or her own’, he corrects.

‘I hardly think so.’

He will have to do something about the furniture, though. But what? He can’t just empty his own office. His battered old couch and few chairs would be swallowed up in this enormous space. Perhaps the Dean’s furniture has just been sent away to be cleaned? Would Motherwell have done something like that? He wonders who would know. It obviously isn’t Vivian Albright. And then there’s the issue of the pens…

Vivian Albright moves deeper into the room and stands where a chair used to be. She would sit on the edge of that chair in her meetings with the Dean. Sometimes they took tea together. That chair was special.

‘It’s not a very attractive room empty, is it? Rather like a country hall that no-one uses anymore.’

‘Is there anything else?’ Iser flexes his newly-acquired authority. She is showing no signs of leaving, and he needs to be alone. To think. He has been in the job for less than an hour and already things are becoming disagreeable. Perhaps he could hire furniture from somewhere?

‘I will need your mobile number.’

‘Philosophers do not have mobile numbers, Mrs Albright, they do not have mobile phones. For the philosopher, mobility means escape from the phone.’

‘And how am I to contact you?’

Men have become the tools of their tools. Henry David Thoreau. Philosopher.’

How am I to contact you, Professor?’

‘When I am here, I am contactable, and when I am not here, I am working. Not contactable, because…’

‘I will order you a mobile phone. Deans must be contactable at all times. I think you’ll find that’s in your contract, Professor.’ Vivian Albright turns abruptly and waltzes out of the room, but the scent of her victory lingers on.

‘I wont use it!,’ he calls out after her. Wants to call out. ‘I wont use it,’ he says to himself. ‘I will keep it turned off. I will take the battery out of it. I will lock it in a drawer. I will auction it at the Christmas break-up. I will not use it.’ He tugs at the locked drawer again. What is in there that is so bloody precious! Is it the only drawer that hasn’t been emptied? Tedious woman! Behaving as if she is already his secretary.

Because she is! She is the Dean of Arts’ secretary, he has just inherited her. No, actually not, it is she who has inherited him. Which, Alain Iser feels the need to reassure himself, is perfectly in order. The Acting Dean of Arts does not go round making new appointments. The Acting Dean of Arts is merely acting. But already he can feel the shine coming off his newly-minted authority.

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‘Are you getting any of this?’, Li-Li whispers to the boy next to her. He is super-organised. He has an iPad, which he is using to trawl the web for references, while his phone captures the lecture and his paper notebook records his handwritten notes in different coloured pens. It’s like he’s got six hands!

Are you?’ she hisses.

‘Yesss,’ he whispers back, unable to pretend he hasn’t heard her.

He wears glasses and looks serious, and that is why Li-Li is sitting next to him. Boys who look like that just have to be clever.

‘Could you explain it to me, later? I’m not understanding it at all.’ But someone shushes her from behind and the serious-looking boy does not get to answer. She opens her own tablet and taps in her passcode. A photo of her playing with Duffy appears on the screen.

‘It is through discourses that subjects gain the knowledge and language to speak of and organise themselves and the social world… We can only speak of and “be ourselves” within the definitions of self produced in discourses…There is no…’

Li-Li feels restless. She tries forcing herself to concentrate by transcribing the lecture onto the tablet but the bits and pieces she manages to capture make no sense. It is not an idea of language that Li-Li has ever heard before. Language to Li-Li means something entirely different. It is the beauty of language, the passion of language that has been impressed on Li-Li. That is what guides her reading of poetry and novels and her love of Shakespeare. 

‘As Foucault says: “One cannot speak of anything at anytime; it is not easy to say something new, it is not enough to open our eyes, to pay attention, or to be aware…”

And Li-Li thinks of the favourite poems they have learnt off by heart, learnt how to say them, as if just for the beauty of the sounds alone. She thinks of the readings of Shakespeare and her marvelling at the magic of that language, language that is so outside the everyday world, and she thinks of the sayings her father comes out with, sayings from his own culture, which, even when translated into English, still sound beautiful.

‘There is, as Foucault says, only discourse, and we cannot speak or know…’

And as the short commanding figure at the lectern talks on about ‘discursive fields’ and ‘subject positions’ and ‘discursive constructions’ and ‘functions of power’, Li-Li Zheng finds herself thinking about God. Is Language sort of like God, she wonders. Because, on the one hand, there is the God who loves you and looks out for you so that no harm will come, (so long as you are good, of course, or ‘fess up when you’re not), and then there is the other God, the furious, jealous God, the God who scolds you and judges you and castes you into the flames of hell for almost nothing. Are there two Languages, Li-Li wonders, just like there are two Gods? The Language that is beautiful and awesome and makes you feel strong, and this other Language, this one that just pushes you around. Dr Tuttle’s language, Li-Li reasons, seems to be just like the mean God, and she taps into her tablet, Language is a vengeful God.

‘That’s great!’ the serious-looking boy next to her whispers, ‘A vengeful God!’ He has been surreptitiously spying on Li-Li and he is staggered by the cleverness of that line. She doesn’t look clever at all. And Li-Li feels suddenly pleased with herself, too pleased for it not to show on her face, and like the serious-looking boy next to her, she thinks that her line is rather original, that is, she thinks ‘she’ has written it, rather than ‘Language’ has, and whether that is true or not will have to wait until more lectures have been experienced and tutorial discussions survived, and Dr Tuttle’s dreadful scrawled comments on her essays deciphered. But as an abstract of Dr Roslyn Tuttle’s first lecture of the year, language is a vengeful God is probably as good as any.

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