The signs to have your formal graduation portrait taken were at least as large as those for the graduands' check-in and for collecting robes, and more colourful. I had an hour to go till the ceremony and you don't have to pay unless you order one. The people in front of me were being slotted one after another into six units of the franchised formula, first alone, then with family, then "next please". Standard lighting setup, friendly and efficient ladies, camera with leads to lights and laptop, a slap-it-down rubber circle where you stand, complete with extra white line at an angle for the posture which ballet-dancers call épaulement. Since you don't have your certificate there's a dummy one to hold: as a friend said, it's nice of them to give you a fajita in case you're hungry. And since, failing a man's shirt and tie, your hood has by then slipped backwards to strangle you, on the back of the fajita is a neat little plastic hook to hold everything together at your breast: the 'right' image is obtained by all sorts of tricks and subterfuges. And I suddenly thought, if ever there's a place for decoding the semiotics of the graduation portrait, it's Goldsmiths. Even if you've only, as I have, read Susan Sontag On Photography and not yet got round to Barthes' Camera Lucida, when you really think about what's going on, it sure is complicated. And the image I've uploaded is taken from the proof, hence the poor quality. 'Proof' is another word/thing with some very complicated layers.
At the ceremony itself, PhDs are different: when you go up onto the platform you carry your hood in your hand, give it to the Warden, and then kneel for him to put it over your head while he says the magic words (in Goldsmiths-speak, the performative utterance) which make you a Doctor of Philosophy. I was just thinking drat-these-shoes-are-the-ones-I-never-got-the-label-off-the sole-properly when I noticed that the graduand next to me was eight months pregnant: was she going to kneel? "I've taken four years to get here, and I'll kneel if it kills me," she said. "Though I may never get up again." Then the platform party entered.
I know it sounds like the opening of a railway, and we were in a hotch-potch late 19th century hall in a supremely scruffy bit of London, but in truth it was all rather splendid, a rare secular ceremony which could rival a religious one for stirring the blood. To the music department's best fanfares processed no less than three maces; black, scarlet, claret and pearl-grey robes; lavish gold braid on hanging sleeves and every possible colour of hood; mortarboards, tudor bonnets like mine, a splendid squashy affair like the original pre-board mortarboard, and even a tricorne on the mayor of Deptford, which is a title in itself to recall Christopher Marlowe and a certain tavern.
The ceremony has legal significance like a wedding so it's full of performative stuff all through, but it's also like a wedding in being complete with crying nephews being whisked out, and a glass of caterer's fizz at the end while your heels sink into the grass. Did it reduce the splendour, and my sense of my right to a place in it, to know that you could decode it in half a hundred ways: cultural, semiotic, historical, social, structuralist, postmodernist, cynical, political, feminist, Marxist? Does understanding of one or more of those ways of decoding enhance or reduce the magic? Well, it didn't for me last Thursday.
You can see where I was going with this (slightly lightheadedly since it was very hot and I'd had too much coffee while waiting), can't you? Many a keen reader would claim that 'doing' a great book or poem at school, having it 'explained', killed it for them. And any newbie writer has to find their way through the ugly duckling phase when it feels as if the magic has gone. And yet even once you've left Eden, you can still surrender to the magic, I think, as an act of will, just as you can decide whether to let yourself by hypnotised. I made a kitchen full of teenagers laugh yesterday, when I couldn't remember something incredibly simple about making the supper. "I'm sorry, my head's still in the eighteenth century," I said, by way of apology, and it was true. I'd come downstairs trailing the writing magic, and it wasn't going to drift away easily. Maybe I will buy a proper print of that portrait.