The Crumbling Tower
In his 1993 Reith Lectures, published as Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said outlines what he sees as the major threats to the independence of mind required for the work of the intellectual. One of these threats is professionalism. As an antidote, Said recommends amateurism: doing things for the love of it, rather than merely conforming to the standards of one’s employment or the demands of the market; refusing to be limited to one’s areas of strict expertise. It was in this spirit that I commenced writing this essay, as someone not employed by a university, as someone without any specific expertise on this topic, as someone freely pursuing ideas without a solution or ‘research outcome’ in mind.
But I found this essay more than usually difficult to write. Originally, it was a paper that I gave at a symposium run by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice responding to the provocation ‘Scholarship is the New Conservative’. I was drawn to the topic for a complex set of reasons, most of them personal. It’s not possible for me to untangle my personal response to this topic from an intellectual one, but I also felt unable to properly articulate the experiences that underpinned my desire to respond. Thus, I found myself giving a paper that added nothing new, that was a rearrangement of other people’s arguments that proffered no solution (because there isn’t one and my paper was unable to adequately acknowledge this fact), and that didn’t approach the complexities of the lived experiences that drew me to attempt to say something about the topic in the first place.
It was, in short, a failure. But, then, perhaps I am ill-prepared for intellectual freedom.
This time I’ll start with my immediate response to the topic, which was – new conservative? In what world is the idea of scholarship as conservative new?
Scholarship, as defined by Stefan Collini, is the open-ended and sustained inquiry into a subject. This means that scholarly endeavour is potentially limitless and unpredictable—and therefore has subversive potential—but that in no way precludes it from being conservative, as a brief glance at the history of any field of study will attest. From the symposium’s Call for Papers, however, it was clear what the convenors had in mind. Behind the statement lay the memory of the 1960s and 1970s, when universities and the radical politics fostered within them were instrumental in fighting for the civil rights of minorities, in helping end the Vietnam War, and in causing civil unrest and general strikes in Paris in May 1968, events that went on to inspire political activists in the latter half of the last century.
Or so I’ve been told. As someone born nearly fifteen years after May 1968, I can’t say I relate to these events all that much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to the values and aims of the movements that underpinned them—of the struggle for a freer, more just society. And I don’t wish to downplay the importance of political activism. I do want to point out though that my understanding of this period has come about mainly through research, through the intellectual debates that arose as a result of these events, which are still strongly felt in parts of the academy today. My knowledge is, in other words, predominantly academic.
That isn’t a problem in itself. Except that at least some of the critiques emerging from this tumultuous period aimed to overcome the divide between life and scholarly pursuits, particularly at the more radical end of the spectrum. Louis Kampf, for instance, thought scholarship should be dispatched with to make way for a new world. In a 1970 essay entitled ‘The Trouble with Literature’, Kampf takes aim at the elitist and imperialist aesthetic hierarchies embedded in the study of literature, which he considers to be contributing to the oppression of marginalised groups. Kampf pushes this line of thought further, claiming that literature itself is part of the problem:
The novel served to pacify women, to turn their imagination inward – to the fictions of fantasy – rather than outward, toward worldly activity. But doesn’t this describe the condition of literature for practically all of us today?
the study of literature … must really come to an end if all of us are to be full participants in the making of our culture, rather than its passive consumers.
Kampf’s longed-for cultural revolution obviously did not eventuate because literary studies is still alive. Moreover, some of the greatest contributions to the field in the intervening decades have taken as their foundation the kinds of critiques of scholarship and literature that grew out of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 70s. Said’s Orientalism is just one highly scholarly and brilliant example in a very complex area of study. Such works introduced a productive scepticism about aesthetic judgements and a self-reflexiveness about questions of legitimacy and authority into the humanities disciplines.
In Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North argues that this kind of inquiry has now become the dominant paradigm (he calls it the ‘historicist/contextualist’ paradigm) and that this ‘scholarly turn’ represents the victory of literary scholarship over literary criticism. Such scholarship, despite its obvious political commitment, is focused on knowledge-production and has little influence outside the academy, according to North. In an ironic twist, if we follow North’s logic, what started as critiques of the inherent biases of scholarship for political ends now fulfils the increasingly bureaucratic, professionalised requirements of research. North is not alone in reacting against the scholarly paradigm and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, to use Paul Ricœur’s phrase. Rita Felski, Toril Moi and Timothy Aubry have also argued in recent years for a shift from the predominance of critique to a greater appreciation of aesthetics and literary criticism.
As opposed to the specialised scholar, the literary critic was more of a generalist or amateur, a little like Said’s intellectual. They addressed a generally educated public, rather than a coterie of scholars well-versed in particular debates and a specific argot. Said, however, goes much further in his conceptualisation of the intellectual, characterising them as an ‘exile and marginal’, as ‘the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power’. For Said, the principal duty of the intellectual is the search for relative independence from the pressures of structures or institutions – nation, class, academy, church, professional guild, worldly powers – which he claims ‘have co-opted the intelligentsia to an extraordinary degree’ in our time. This autonomy enables intellectuals to challenge those in power and to address the public in order to ‘speak up for the forgotten and the powerless.’ How effectively intellectuals today are able to connect to a public and who this public even consists of are questions that are beyond the scope of this essay, but this difference highlights the distinction, at least in aims, between the work of the intellectual and that of the scholar – although the two are not mutually exclusive.
When Said delivered his Reith lectures he was a tenured Professor at Columbia University. Being an academic and a representative of the kind of specialist historicist literary scholarship written predominantly for other scholars did not interfere with his capacity to be a public intellectual. Such a situation is, however, increasingly untenable in the contemporary university in Australia or the UK. Despite North’s argument that the historicist/scholarly paradigm in literary studies neatly fits in with the demands of the neoliberal order, North spends little time on a concrete analysis of the impacts of this order on the university system itself.
Once upon a time, the Australian government was satisfied with funding universities and leaving them largely to their own devices to determine how best this funding would be spent. Now, under the guise of accountability, governments have implemented measures that have ended up further controlling scholarship as free enquiry, curtailing the possibility of public intellectuals emerging who also hold academic posts. Of course universities have been embedded within structures of privilege and power long before the advent of neoliberalism, but the politicised rhetoric of certain scholarly endeavours in the humanities today is starkly at odds with the grim realities of the managerial university.
In today’s bureaucratised university, definitions of research are modelled on new discoveries in the sciences, rather than, as Collini suggests, on arriving at or imparting new understandings, a definition that would be more appropriate for scholarship in the humanities. They take as their gold standard publications in highly ranked ERA journals that are only read by other academics, ignoring publications such as the LRB, NYRB, or in Australia the SRB, which have fostered significant public debates. Researchers are pressured to publish in the most prestigious academic presses possible, even if that means giving up on the relevance and public impact of their work. Although academics may still publish articles in magazines for a more general readership on the side, this doesn’t solve the core question, which is how to value rigorous intellectual work in itself, not for the points it gets you on a bureaucratic scale of measurement designed without your areas of study in mind or even for its public impact (but not excluding that goal either).
But even publication in the right journals or with the right university presses is now rarely sufficient in the new profit-oriented universities (a situation partly created by cuts in government research funding); increasingly, the only way to obtain sufficient time to complete scholarly research is by obtaining an external grant or some other sort of research funding so you can ‘buy out’ your teaching. Even then, supposedly independent bodies for administering research funding from the Commonwealth, such as the Australian Research Council (ARC), can be overruled if it turns out the Minister for Education doesn’t like the sound of your topic. So much for the autonomy of the intellectual or even of scholarship. Scholarship becomes research, oriented to outputs, end-users and products, while intellectuals become ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘experts’, losing their critical autonomous edge.
None of this will be particularly new to anyone who has spent much time in academia, although commentators continue to exhort scholars to emerge from their ivory towers and connect with the public as if it were all just a matter of choice. In reality, the tower is crumbling. Rather than abolishing elitism or quietism, however, this collapse encourages both, as academics scramble to fulfil the increasingly bureaucratic research measures of the neoliberal university.
I’d like to end the essay here, but something continues to nag at me, making me want to take my writing apart and put it back together again, like playing with a bad tooth. When I first started thinking about this topic, I was struck by a line from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s masterful novel, Go, Went, Gone: ‘clever, stupid, eccentric, ambitious, shy, obsessed with their fields.’ This is how the main character, a recently retired Classics Professor named Richard, characterises his colleagues at an academic symposium. The statement is not simply cynical or dismissive, although it does capture something of the single-mindedness that scholarly work demands. The description comes after Richard gives a paper ostensibly about reason in the work of Seneca, but finds himself talking about memory, power and powerlessness instead, a shift that is precipitated by his developing relationship with a group of African refugees. Throughout the novel, Erpenbeck contrasts Richard’s rational, Eurocentric knowledge with the disordered lives of these men, but the brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that this never devolves into one-sided exchange; the knowledge and the limitations of both parties are equally exposed. As his relationship with the group of men progresses, Richard turns into more of an advocate or an activist, but he can only ever mitigate the problems they face, since the larger issues surrounding migration in our time remain irresolvable.
I related to that particular line, and to the novel more broadly, because it captured something of the difficulties in making everyday life and the life of the mind align. Despite the myriad additional demands on academics today, especially in this COVID-19 moment, I still find the cloistered atmosphere in parts of academia persists. It arouses an anxious feeling of discontentment in me, similar to the sensation I get when I spend too much time on social media. It has something to do with the sense of being in an echo-chamber, with the lack of engagement with those who don’t share my first principles, with the niche nature of the work that could become less niche if there was the time, the space, the money, the value placed on opening it up to broader audiences.
There are no simple ways to overcome this problem. It’s not as if engagement with the Other outside the academy isn’t fraught, but the attempt to engage, and the personal risk such an attempt entails, contains an ethical imperative that partly disappears when you only address those who already speak your language, even as they disagree. Disagreement is fundamental to scholarship, but there is also a tendency towards ever more nuanced debates within specific fields that require familiarity with the language of these disciplines in order for individuals to participate. This is natural enough, and fairly unavoidable, but it does mean that scholarship generally doesn’t address itself to those outside certain disciplinary boundaries. There are, of course, all kinds of ways in which teaching can bring problems and questions about relating to others into play, but as I am discussing scholarship in this essay, I will bracket that to one side.
Perhaps this feeling also has to do with the fact that much academic work encourages me to airbrush my divided self, which makes me feel I am spending my time on something adjacent to what I really want to say, that I am always measuring, qualifying, justifying and never opening the work up to the contradictions that I inhabit. There are academics who are able to situate themselves in their work more truthfully than I can, but this kind of work is sometimes labelled as ‘creative writing’, and I have a distinct memory of someone in the Arts Faculty of a university telling me: ‘I don’t how much longer we will be able to claim this stuff [creative works] as research. I mean, if you look at the HERDC [Higher Education Research Data Collection] definition of research, it just doesn’t fit.’
I suppose my ambivalence about scholarship actually comes down to a fear that, not only will I spend my life in scholarly pursuits rather than living it, as if living were an uncomplicated thing one does instinctively and without thought, but that I will spend it, like the protagonist of John Banville’s The Sea, with myself unsaid. But doesn’t all this also relate to the demand Kampf and others like him made that has not yet been fully answered: that scholarship, particularly the humanities, should help us live rather than retreat from life? That scholarly work will illuminate and inform and itself be informed by a fuller, richer life? In the competitive world of the neoliberal university, however, this aim tends to recede ever further out of reach.
There are no straightforward solutions to these dilemmas. What is clear, however, is that, by encroaching upon the autonomy of universities, governments undermine not only scholarship – that free play of ideas that may or may not have utilitarian applications – but also the possibilities for disseminating these ideas to broader audiences.
This is an edited version of a paper delivered at Provocations #2: Scholarship is the New Conservative at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice in 6 September 2019.
Timothy Aubry, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Stefan Collini, What are Universities For? London: Penguin Books, 2012.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone. Trans. Susan Bernofsky. London: Portobello Books, 2017.
Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Louis Kampf, ‘The Trouble with Literature’ Change in Higher Education, Vol 2: 3 (May-June 1970), pp. 27-34.
Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.