From Where I Sit - Present harms

February 7, 2013

We introduce people to others all the time. It is so routine that it almost seems natural rather than cultural. But introductions can be perilous - not so much to the person being introduced but to the person doing the introducing.

I am thinking, of course, about academic introductions, as when one needs to introduce a speaker at a conference or a lecture. I once had a colleague who was a master of academic introductions. He was so good at it you might attend one of his events just to hear him introduce it.

He had a gift for making everyone seem not just qualified, dignified and relevant, but also exciting, glamorous and precious: the personal face of an occasion not to be missed. His introductions tripped off the tongue in rich, round sentences that at once elevated and quickened. But my colleague was like that: he was dedicated to making every part of life he came in contact with more important than it was.

For my own part I am, I think, OK at it. I know that a good introduction is appreciated by everyone involved, so I prepare and try to imitate my former colleague. But sometimes I trip over my words, or lose my place, or feel a kind of daze coming over me, and then I compensate with an abundance of enthusiasm for what I lack in eloquence.

I have known a number of academics who are just terrible at introductions. They can’t bring themselves to say, in public, nice things about other people. Even if they are well prepared and know their colleagues to be worthy, they stutter and stammer; they lose their notes; they get embarrassed; they blush; they hurry; they break off and finish poorly.

It turns out that introducing is a lot like teaching. It puts you on the spot. It requires you to say what, if it is true, should not need to be said; and, if it isn’t true, should not be said at all.

Roland Barthes once compared the teacher in the classroom to the analysand on the couch. The teacher in front of a class is exposed, according to Barthes, to the big Other. And so is the introducer. You think you are doing other people a service, and you are. But you are also exposing yourself to your own deviousness in the face of a terrible silence.

I once had a professor in California who was usually, wherever he went, the smartest person in the room. Unfortunately, he knew that. But he also fancied himself a great man at hosting events and introducing guest speakers. And at this he was not so good, for he was overly self-conscious and secretly ungracious. He often ended up embarrassing himself.

One time I saw him try to work up an introduction to a large crowd of a famous scholar, a small and matronly woman.

He went on for more than five minutes, but he just couldn’t get it going. And then while trying to stress, one more time, how admirable he thought she was (although he probably wasn’t sure whether he thought that at all), he said, with fulsome energy, that watching the career of this scholar from afar was like “watching the run of a great thoroughbred”.

He paused. In the silence, everybody’s jaw dropped. In this psychoanalytically predictable but nevertheless astonishing moment, our great professor had just compared his famous guest speaker to…a horse.

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