I have been to more conferences than I care to remember and have often listened to old, old fogeys spouting forth. But one of the more fascinating experiences is when some very old man or woman ends up delivering a mish-mash of odd ideas, if not simply rambling on incoherently. I have wondered about knowing when to stop, when your mind and mouth are no longer what they used to be. I guess it requires someone else to tell you.

But over the last few days another idea hit me: an old fogey panel or series of panels. This would be reserved for exactly such garbled presentations, full of vague and wandering ideas. How would it work? The inspiration comes from China. A couple of years ago I attended a large conference, where one particular very old invited speaker was less than impressive. In fact, it was pure rubbish. Yet, after his presentation, countless people came forth, shook his hand, wanted photos taken with him and so on.

Puzzled, I asked the person next to me, ‘How can people be so impressed when what he said was so bad?’

‘Oh’, said my colleague. ‘We deeply respect old people, especially the very old. We show them the utmost respect. But we don’t listen to a word they say’.

Exactly why there should be old fogey panels.

An interesting report from the Grattan Institute on higher education funding for teaching and research has just appeared. Among a number of points, I enjoyed these the most:

1. There is little direct connection between research and teaching. I suggest it is because the courses taught usually have little if anything to do with the research undertaken. This busts the myth, propounded again and again, that teaching and research go hand-in-hand.

2. Universities in Australia already make about 3.2 billion in surplus from university fees, mostly from international students. And this is with a system that has significant government input. This money goes directly into research, since universities are keen to climb the dubious league tables that do the rounds these days.

3. Funding for research has increased exponentially since 2002.

However, what the report does not say is that research is typically over-funded with minimal expectations for output. That is, they give too much money for too few results. Each year people ask for more and more money, and fellowships increase their pay levels. Yet the expected results of research are ludicrously small. This situation creates a conundrum: a researcher has to spend grant money on research activities when less than half, if not a quarter, would be more than enough for the proposed research. Why give so much money? University research standing is also assessed on the basis of research money earned. It gets even better, for now we are expected to provide a return (at 2, 3 or 5 times) on the money ‘invested’ – the creation of a pseudo-market. Perverse? Of course. Australia has the dubious reputation of leading the world in such practices. This curious situation has brought me to the point of not applying for research money any longer. As one who has managed to get a few modest grants, I find I can get more actual research and writing done without them.

两 岸   啼 不 住

Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu:

The monkeys on both banks are still gibbering.

That should probably be ‘my slide into deeper disappointment’ – with Stephen Kotkin’s ‘biography’ of Stalin. Yes, scare quotes, since the effort is more like Kotkin’s rambling notes on the history of Russia – and much of the rest of the world – in the 20th century. My gut feeling about this book was confirmed with Kotkin’s take on the argument that the Bolsheviks actually managed to pull off the impossible: rescue, reestablish and refound a state in a country that was well on the way to becoming a collapsed state. For Kotkin, this state was nothing more than a criminal network:

This was a very peculiar state: an armed political police that resembled criminal bandits; a sprawling food procurement commissariat, which bested numerous rivals in a battle for bureaucratic aggrandizement; a distribution apparatus to allocate the spoils and to feed off them itself; an immense desertion-beset Red Army; an inefficient but – thanks to the aura of emergency – increasingly hierarchical party hydra, which absorbed and deployed personnel; and a propaganda machinery … wielding newspaper, posters, skits, films and agitation trains (pp. 289-90)

Apart from the rabid anti-communism of such a caricature – a bloated hydra feeding off spoils – I should add that for Kotkin there really was no ‘counter-revolution’, since it was the creation of the propaganda machine. Oh yes, the Red Army did not win the civil war; it simply stood by while the White Armies collapsed around them.

Is it possible that one may have special insight into the soul, whether living or dead? The ‘deep’ thinker is able to plumb the depths of truth, of the human condition, of life itself. When discussing a philosopher’s complex and controversial reasoning, the thinker barely pauses to observe, ‘he was an evil man’. All discussion stops, stunned by the revelation – or perhaps flabbergasted, for I can never tell. Immediately, the philosopher’s thought is worthless. Or in a debate over different cultural traditions, their intersections and alternative paths, the thinker comes straight the point and says with utmost gravity, ‘we’re all different’. Strange how no-one had thought of that before. No need for further debate. Or when discussing the fundamental issues of how to bake bread, when to take out the garbage, whether the windows need cleaning, or whether picking one’s nose or blowing it is better, she will point out: ‘there is a little goodness within’. Yes, of course; somehow I had not realised such a truth until now.

I must admit that I am slower than most in divining the nature of the ‘deep’ thinker. At first, I too am taken in by such insight, such wisdom. But eventually I too realise it is all a sham. The thinker attempts to mask stunning superficiality with the pretence of thought. Forget scholarly tomes, careful study, the struggle with formulating one’s thought. A cliché will do, anytime and every time. Such a cliché is particularly useful when discussion reaches a level – usually rather quickly – in which the thinker feels out of depth. Thus, Plato or Adorno or Lenin or Mao can be summed up in a one-liner, without ever reading a word they wrote. The thinker need not write anything, for he or she already knows the truth and can impart it, like a guru, in pithy statements. Others will of course pick up these morsels of wisdom and convey them to the masses.

The ‘deep’ thinker aspires to be a guru. No, he is certain that he really is a guru. The paradox of the guru is that in the very act of eschewing the trappings of superficiality, the guru is the most obsessively superficial of all.

The good chairman certainly has some great lines on intellectuals, much better than my ‘Typology of scholars‘. For instance:

I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air and strut around, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in the world, then I’m at least number two’ … Right now there are some intellectuals who are floating around in the air. They are like fifteen buckets being used to get water from the well – with seven going up and eight going down. They can’t get up to the heavens and they can’t get down to the ground. They all just float around in the air. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976, vol. 2, pp. 611-12)

Actually, this reminds of the thoroughly depressing film, Footnote. It all turns on the futile pursuit of being recognised as the best, with the cranky old philologist, Eliezer Shkolnik, having gained a mention in a footnote to an edition of the Jerusalem Talmud – the only living scholar to have been so recognised, thereby putting him on par with the sages (for they also appear in such footnotes). But this is not enough for Eliezer, for he craves recognition of his achievement by the establishment. Meanwhile, it is too much for his son, who tries to outdo his father, and for Eliezer’s great rival, Yehuda Grossman, who blocks Eliezer at every turn. The result is destroyed lives and relationships as petulant, obsessive and back-stabbing scholars fight each other to intellectual and reputational death. 

As part of my research concerning the alienated nature of the public sphere (which is normally assumed to be the domain of ‘democratic freedom’), I have been reading Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. As I do so, I keep coming across all manner of other enlightened observations. For instance, on women:

Man therefore has his actual substantial life in the state, in learning, etc., and otherwise in work and struggle with the external world and with himself, so that it is only through his division that he fights his way to self-sufficient unity with himself … Woman, however, has her substantial vocation in the family, and her ethical disposition consists in this piety (§ 166).

In other words:

Women may well be educated, but they are not made for the higher sciences, for philosophy and certain artistic productions which require a universal element. Women may have insights, taste, and delicacy, but they do not possess the ideal … When women are in charge of government, the state is in danger, for their actions are based not on the demands of universality but on contingent inclination and opinion (§ 166).

As for barbarians:

The barbarian is lazy and differs from the educated man in his dull and solitary brooding, for practical education consists precisely in the need and habit of being occupied (§ 198).

Barbarians are governed by drives, customs and feelings, but they have no consciousness of these (§ 211).

That is, ‘uncivilised’ people simply cannot act rationally. I hear that still today in some parts, concerning Greenlanders or Australian Aborigines.

For the enlightened Hegel, barbarians and indeed women are much like the planets:

The sun and the planets also have their laws, but they are unaware of them (§ 211).

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