Saturday, January 14, 2006

Chummy combatants

Uppsala, Friday afternoon. There we were, a large audience of jaded disputation attendees, hoping to see blood, eager to see Svante Fischer and Klavs Randsborg rip great bleeding chunks out of each other with their teeth. And they let us down. There was no show. They went all huggy and chummy on us. There was joking, there were laughs, the opponent paid compliments to the respondent.

Dr Fischer's thesis is named Roman imperialism and runic literacy. It's about the early runic inscriptions of the 2nd through the 8th centuries and their cultural context with regard to pan-European politics, the demise of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Germanic successor kingdoms. According to professor Randsborg, this is a lively book that is unlikely to make the reader fall asleep, with many surprising digressions, written in a conversational and accessible style. I've read about a third of a manuscript version, and I think I'll agree with the professor.

But chummy opponents are common. What was singular about this disputation was the metamorphosis of the defendant.

I know Dr Fischer as an unshaven, ruffled character in a roots reggae tee-shirt and an old military jacket. He will buttonhole you at the Academy library and rant about Frankish warlords, big-game hunting and his plans to arm himself and fortify his summer house in preparation for the day that society breaks down irreparably. Think Hunter S. Thompson meets Rambo at the Society of Antiquaries.

The man defending Dr Fischer's thesis yesterday wore a conservative dark suit and a tie. He was clean-shaven, had recently had a haircut, and responded in accents mild and pedagogic to the opponent's questions, as if he were speaking to a beloved child. We started to recognise Fischer toward the end, when he poked fun at Danish nationalism, and with great relief we saw him bloom back into full existence after Randsborg's bit was done. The guy responding to questions from the audience was Svante Fischer, no doubt about it.

The aptly named runologist Rune Palm made a point that I agree with: Fischer's book contains a lot of confusing jargon, where words like technolect and reification are used in senses unique to this text, albeit explicitly defined at its start. Another gentleman made a less convincing argument that was forcefully pulverised by Dr Fischer in a shouting match. And just as our pulses started to quicken, just as our hopes of violent slugging re-awoke -- the disputation was done.

So, you runies, have a look at the book!

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