When you’ve been around for a while, you start to notice a few patterns in the way scholars do their thing. So I thought I would begin a typology of scholars over the next little while. However, the premise here is based on a question I was asked quite a while ago:
‘What is a university like?’ someone asked me who had no experience whatsoever with these places.
‘Remember the nerds at school, the ones who studied all the time and got the top marks?’ I said.
‘Well, they all ended up working at universities and other places like them’, I said.
‘Oh my God!’ She said. ‘A place full of nerds …’
To resume: an initial straw poll concerning types of scholars begins with:
* The Encyclopaedist
* The ‘Scientist’
* The Unnoticed Genius
* The Put-Downer/Climber
* The Self-Seller
* Big Fish in a Slimy Pond
* The Snob
* The Colonialist
* The Politician
* Lord of the Manor
* The Borrower
* The Turbo-Prof
* The Thin-Skinned
* The Best Friend
* Bitter and Twisted
* The Intellectual Hit-man
* The Legendary Piss-Pot
* The Name-Dropper
* The One in the Position of Superior Knowledge
* The Chardonnay Socialist
* Doceo, ergo Pedicabo
* The Petty-Bourgeois Life-Styler
* The Businessman
* The Onion-Grower
* The Seducer
* The Grantsman
* The Wordsmith
* The Networker
* The Impact Tart
* The Bully
* The Crapper
* The ‘Comrade’
* The ‘Deep’ Thinker
* The Solar-Arse, or, the One With the Sun Shining out of his or her Arse
Obviously these will overlap and more than one can easily be found in individual scholars. But let’s begin with:
Like a bower-bird or compulsive collector, this person believes that the be-all and end-all of scholarship is about collecting a massive amount of data. If it gets published, the result usually appears in two forms: a rearrangement of the material in some way, whether chronologically, thematically or haphazardly; or letting the ‘sources speak for themselves’, thereby attempting to perpetuate the fiction that the mediator is absent.
Of course, part of the intense generic training for scholarship and its continual policing has a good dose of data collection. And some disciplines believe that their modes of data collection (say, speaking with people or using archives) are better than others (reading texts). And the world needs people like this, since otherwise who in the hell is going to edit and write those endless encyclopaedias?
I love these people, since you can be assured that they will probably have the answer to the most arcane question? They can veer into the know-it-all (a later topic). And they can even be good at trivia. But shit a brick, since when is collecting junk the purpose of life? Well, I guess you find it at the heart of capitalism. But that’s not the best argument in favour of the encyclopaedist.
You may or not have experienced this moment, but if not, it is sure to come. A grey-headed (usually European but by no means always) professor deigns to ask you what you are doing. You mention the research that has you enthused and excited, so he winks and says, ‘As long as you don’t get too “ideological” and forget to be “scientific”’.
Translated, this is usually ‘scholarly’, or even – believe it or not – ‘objective’. In this case, you can’t get too passionate about a topic, keeping it at arm’s length, a position that makes one wonder why you would be interested in a topic at all. It may be a psychologist or anthropologist who has to carry on the fiction that he or she is a detached observer of the people being studied (forget Taussig on that one). This often goes hand-in-hand with denigrating those who are too passionate or too involved and thereby not ‘scholarly’ enough and – horror of horrors – too ‘subjective’.
Another example comes from the invasion and occupation of East Germany by the West. One of the benevolent acts of the new occupying forces was to sack all of the university people and then get them to reapply for their old jobs. If they were deemed ‘ideological’, that is, had any sympathy with or even did not denounce communism, they suddenly found themselves unemployed. Of course, the ‘scholarly’, ‘scientific’ scholars aren’t ideological at all.
You also find this strange position among some biblical scholars, who feel that opposing ‘religious commitment’ is the most innovative thing you can do. Then you get the crudest (and idealist) distinctions, in which religion becomes the cause of all evil – a position they share with the likes of Dawkins and the freshly buried Hitchens. So to oppose religion becomes avant-garde. Yeah, maybe in the 17th century.
The Unnoticed Genius
The way the star system has developed in academia means that few of us are happy to remain incognito, quietly walking in the mountains and jotting in a small notebook, sending books off to a press and selling maybe four or five – like Nietzsche (although he was also pondering the advanced effects of syphilis). I guess that’s what theological study can do to you.
To resume: another factor plays a role here as well. In order to make it through the long apprenticeship, in which someone who is forty is still regarded as ‘youthful’, an intellectual needs to develop some survival skills, especially a belief that what he or she is doing is important, so crucial that the future of the human race depends upon it.
Put these two together – the star system and a sense of extraordinary self-importance – and add a third: no one has recognised the obvious fact that you are really the best thing since Plato or perhaps Confucius. Damn this ignorant generation! Do they not know true genius when they see it? All of which breeds some very endearing features.
Our unnoticed genius spends his or her whole time asserting that everyone around him or her, in the institution in question, in the discipline as a whole, is as dumb as an inbred village. Indeed, the only redeeming feature of aforesaid institution or organisation is precisely our friend, Plato redivivus. After all, that pamphlet published with a vanity press leaves the Analects or The Last Days of Socrates for dead. So emails are sent out with elaborate sign-offs, listing all the glorious achievements. The family is regaled at Christmas time with the latest, stunning breakthrough. The children are raised with a burning desire to see that justice will finally be done on behalf of mum or dad. On his desk sits a copy of the text from the Gospel of Luke: ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town’.
Modest? Of course our genius is modest, for that is a mark of true genius.
The put-down: it is a fine art, turned into a lethal modus operandi by a few. It is one thing to share a joke over beer concerning a mate who is getting a little too full of him- or herself. It is entirely another to use it as a way of advancing that brilliant career called academia.
You find it in the mode of intellectual flexing at conferences (like a body-builder’s posing routine, except of the mind – and thereby far less enticing), in the way meetings or seminars are run, and often in anonymous reviewing. Once let loose in the reviewing process, these attractive characters love to use phrases such as: ‘As I tell my students …’; ‘This reads like a student essay …’; ‘This author obviously speaks English as a second language …’; ‘I don’t know why this author bothered; she should not give up her day job …’.
But the one who makes it a priority in life is another case entirely. It begins with an email or a phone call, full of flattery, mentioning all that you might have written, asking to visit. Given that we are bred to seek the crumbs of renown (see the ‘Unnoticed Genius’), we fall for the silky words. After a couple of weeks or perhaps months getting to know you, the put-downs begin. Personal attacks, whispers to friends, denigration of your work … for the only way such a person knows how to climb the intellectual ladder is to take out those he or she perceives to be above them – like dogs in a pack. Our climber may have asked you to contribute to a book that is being edited, full of illustrious names (who have usually never heard of the edited volume or its editor), but then you are unceremoniously dumped. After which the Put-Downer doesn’t even think it worth the time of day to fart in your general direction. In all this our wonderful colleague has forgotten to put-down himself.
One of the more endearing features of academia is the need to ‘sell oneself’, as though you were a commercial product that needs some decent advertising. You are supposed to do it in job interviews, with ready-made answers for questions such, ‘do you have any shortcomings?’ ‘Of course,’ is the answer, ‘I probably work too hard and don’t take enough rest’. This game has become so sophisticated that in some parts of the world a scholar will measure her or his worth purely on the basis of how lucrative the latest pay offer is from some ludicrous institution like Harvard or Yale.
To resume: you are supposed to do it for presses in ‘promoting’ your books, which make all their profits from the largely unpaid labour of scholars. I little self-promotion thereby provides them with even more free labour (just check out my sidebar). You are supposed to do it for grant applications, for which you can take special classes in the means of giving an application the right ‘slant’ – given that billions of dollars are given out worldwide on the basis purely of a piece of paper you have written on behalf of yourself. Who said politicians are the masters of spin?
And you are expected to do it on university web-pages, if you happen to work in one of those feudal institutions. Lists of up-to-date publications show just how much ‘high impact’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘cutting edge’ (nice appropriation of working-class imagery there) research you have done in what is now called the ‘innovation industry’. You are supposed to list that high-impact article, published perhaps in National Cat, as a sign of your – no, actually it’s the university’s – market value. Now that you have been sucked in, you go all out on the key profile page. With a flourish of self-importance, you boldly claim to be the ‘leading scholar’ or perhaps a ‘world authority’ on home surgery, the Sanskrit ablative, or how to shave one’s own back.
After all, you need to attract swarms of PhD students, as if the world doesn’t have enough dodgy academic doctors looking for a job.
Big Fish in a Slimy Pond
A great temptation for some people: this is, obviously, the situation in which one may be a big shot in one’s own little circle. It may be the theologian who becomes an expert in, say, feminism, or cultural criticism, or Marxism, but stays purely within theology where she or he is a real ‘authority’. God forbid that you should actually spend some time with real gender critics, or Marxists or psychoanalysts. It may be the only ‘expert’ in Icelandic Terrorism, who can hold forth on any topic with absolute abandon, since everyone else knows bugger all about anything much.
You also find this with people who encounter the ‘big show’, if you will. It may be a big conference, or perhaps a new and larger circle of scholars who actually know something, or a situation slightly more than a group of fresh-faced, worshipful students. But now the narrative becomes interesting: on the one visit to the big arena, our knowledgeable scholar opines that no-one knows what they are talking about, since all those hundreds of papers from around the world are worthless, so it’s not worth going again. Or they are too traditional and I’m just too much of a radical for them all, so I’ll give that a miss. Or they aren’t really scholars since they don’t do real, scholarly, ‘scientific’ ‘exegesis’.
Instead, the apparently big fish can return to the small, stagnant pond, getting fat on pond slime and the perceived authority that comes from being the person with one eye among the blind.
Intellectual life seems to breed snobbery as a central element of its petty-bourgeois class-consciousness. It is at work in relation to those outside the class fraction of intellectuals – ‘I simply cannot understand how anyone would be able to talk with someone who doesn’t read'; ‘what’s the definition of someone without a fistful of degrees? Homo Stupidicus'; and so on. Knowing, deep down, that we are marginal at best to the workings of society and politics, yet insisting that we are of the ‘cultural elite’ is a decidedly unhealthy element of that consciousness.
And it is at work among intellectuals themselves, at times to a refined degree. The snob will opine that such and such a doctorate can’t be so good, since, well, you know, that ‘university’ has a nerve to call itself one at all. A snobbish selection committee will simply assume that some sociopath with congenital fascism from a ‘well-known’ institution is better than the brilliant applicant from the University of Woop-Woop. The snob assumes the birthright of a position at a university that meets his own high standing in the intellectual world, for, after all, the snobs at this beacon of light in the midst of the new dark ages will appoint only snobs, won’t they? But if the snob finds, to her unending horror, that she does actually scrape into a position as the aforesaid University of Woop-Woop, then she will let it loudly be known that it was all a mistake, that she will be gone soon enough, that she will simply kill herself if she has to stay another minute.
And the snob assumes that the mark intellectual prowess is the fancy title you may accrue, such as the Jack the Ripper Distinguished Professor of Toe-Cutting and Other Sundry Skills for Winning Friends and Influencing People. Or the number of letters one may place after one’s name, such as DSO (Dick Shot Off), OBE (Order of Bull and Excrement), RAPA (…). At any gathering, in any correspondence, the snob will introduce people only by means of their esteemed titles and pendulous acronyms. Of course, the snob reads articles only from mainstream, reputable, established journals, since that’s where one finds ideas that are ‘ground-breaking’ will never challenge the status quo.
Living in a former colony you get to see this type quite a bit, although we may also identify what may be called an ‘internal colonialist’. As for the latter, this appealing scholar usually hails from some large city, finding him- or herself unexpectedly at a regional institution (where the snob may also be found). Unable to hide a sheer disdain of the locals, who are of course impossibly parochial, who marry cousins as a matter of course and do strange things with animals, our relocated scholar lets it be known that he or she is there under extreme sufferance, that he or she will be gone as soon as a suitable opportunity presents itself. Understandably, the locals take umbrage, avoid our friend, slip strange substances into his coffee and egg his car.
As for our traditional colonialist, it used to be the case that intellectuals from the former colonial centres in Europe would view a stint in the colonies as a viable proposition. The reasons may have been somewhat dubious – seducing one’s boss’s wife, a fondness for young black boys, a ‘ghost-written’ doctoral thesis, impending bankruptcy, a love-affair with the bottle. Or they may have been cast in a more positive, even philanthropic light – a short stint among the colonials to jump-start a lagging career, a desire to ‘help’ those unfortunate, ignorant and unwashed locals, even if one has to do without the comforts of life (running water, electricity, banks, eating implements) and wild animals on the streets for a couple of years.
Of course, back in the colony, the search committee, which had avidly looked ‘home’ for a quality scholar, would greet with reverend awe the staggering, dishevelled ‘professor’ swigging a bottle as he makes his way down the gangplank. As he slurred, ‘take me to the broads’, the welcoming committee would be heard to mutter among themselves: ‘never before has such an illustrious scholar deemed to put foot on our shores’; ‘we must find more of his type’; ‘at last one of our own has come to join us’. All of which was then enhanced when he proceeded to behave like an arrogant arsehole, deriding everything in his new abode – the food, the culture, the sunshine, the education system …
Back in the crumbling and sodden, rainy capitals of old empires, his former colleagues would shake their heads, pointing out that our illustrious scholar had resigned himself to intellectual oblivion on the edge of the world, indeed that he had signed his intellectual death-warrant. Then again, it was either that or the bottle.
Past tense? Maybe I should have used the present tense.
The schemer or ‘politician’ is, again, all too common. It is usually someone who quickly tires of actual teaching, finding students a gross waste of time (unlike pedicabo) and the possibility of a new thought absolutely terrifying. It can truly be said that the politician is one who has never had a thought without reading or hearing it somewhere else. What really sets the juices going is the thought of wielding ‘power’.
So she or he salivates at the thought of a committee, leaps at the chance for a heavy administrative role in which he or she can lord it over others, sleeps with this one or that higher up the rung in order to gain crucial insights that may come in handy, who spends long hours pondering his next move to gain access to the powers that be.
With their feudal-like structures, universities lend themselves to labyrinthine intrigue, favours done, gaining the ear of a heavyweight, eliminations carried out through humiliation and whispers, the bending of rules in order to edge ever upward. For some it is what makes it all worthwhile, a job well-done, self-advancement the mark of a true intellectual. For others, it suggests there’s something pretty sick about the whole business.
The ‘Politician’ is probably one of the saddest of all types, since the power you can accrue in a university is bugger-all.
Lord of the Manor
Once again, the structural predilection of universities encourages us all to be lords of our own little manors. Witness the myriad centres, schools, programs, laboratories. Witness the need to gather a group of serfs – adoring students, postgraduate scholars, research fellows – all of whom owe their opportunity to the lord’s favour. Witness indeed the professorial system itself, especially in its Germanic variety, in which the high-handed professor distributes funds, hands out favours, relies on a servile court of aspiring scholars to reinforce his own sense of superiority. And the lord deems that the only people really worth talking to are other lords, visiting them in their domains, perhaps lecturing the local serfs. All of this is, of course, done for the ‘advancement of scholarship’, the ‘good of the university’, the ‘benefit of those less privileged’.
And notice how the lord refers to ‘my’ doctoral students, ‘my’ postdocs, ‘my’ centre or even ‘my’ university. Our worthy lord may treat her or his serfs in many different ways, with benevolence, with disdain, as a source of new ideas that can then be ‘recycled’ as the lord’s own. So the serfs respond accordingly, although usually it is a mix of resentment and slavish subservience. On the one hand, the lord is a tired old hack who is really not so interesting, who may be derided in the earshot of the other serfs, and whose demise cannot come quickly enough. On the other hand, the serfs will come to the defence of their lord should an enemy appear, for they owe their livelihood and future prospects to the lord. Of course, as soon as a serf manages to crawl into a coveted lordship, she will act in exactly the same manner.
To borrow a phrase from my characterisation of the ‘politician’, the borrower has never had a thought that she or he has not read o heard somewhere else. I do not seek to invoke the spurious category of ‘plagiarism’, the heresy of the intellectual world, in which one draws an arbitrary line and then banishes into outer darkness those who step over that line. No, I am interested in the creative strategies used by those terrified of a new idea.
It may be couched in the weary advice to students: if you think you have had an original idea, someone else has had it before you. It may be the person whose approach is to gain ideas by talking to colleagues and friends, carefully filing the key points of the conversation and the reiterating them in a thesis or article. The borrower may seize upon the papers of a colleague who has resigned in disgust and use them, unrevised, in a scintillating paper. Or the borrower may ask a newly made ‘friend’ for a copy of his latest research paper, only to pump out something on the same topic and publishing it quickly – using established networks.
Possibly the best example is a very creative head honcho at an unnamed university. Dreading solitary space, a blank piece of paper and an empty mind, he would gather a group at his place, ply them with food and grog, and ask, ‘Now what about this question?’ After a couple of hours talk, he would say to Bill: ‘Why don’t you write a draft paper on this and then pass it around?’ Bill would do so, the others would add their revisions and he would ensure his name was on the piece. When he became top dog, he suddenly was confronted by an office full of empty shelves. Not being a reader, he had collected few books in his life. Ever the lateral thinker, he phoned the library and asked whether they had any books about to be tossed. Before long, wheelbarrows of books appeared on all manner of topics: tax law, biophysics, the philosophy of Duns Scotus, Inuit shamanism, ship-building, 12th century Spanish politics … Visitors to office scanning the shelves would be amazed. ‘The man is a polymath’, they would say in awe.
The French coined this lovely phrase to describe those who opine, ‘I am happy only when jetting off to give a paper somewhere in the world’ (to quote a former colleague). Back in France, the term initially designated those who had become fashionable in the USA, turboing back and forth from French universities to a visiting appointment somewhere on the West Coast. Derrida was renowned for being escorted to and from planes, putting on his helpless air and faux modesty and holding forth to rapt audiences. Following his example, Spivak seemed always to be stepping on and off planes, and one may charitably attribute her incomprehensibility to a perpetual state of jetlag.
These days many of us seem to be turbo-profs. A bomb-proof suitcase is kept ready at the door, a plane ticket is always in hand, the price-tag for the talk is already in the bank, the travel shag beckons, along with the anticipated revelries that allow our all-important turbo-prof to let off steam. One turbo-prof I knew said she no longer saw any point in writing, since that pricey lecture (repeated ad nauseam to endless audiences) every second weekend was far more lucrative. Another insisted that he would speak only if giving a plenary at a conference. Like deluded rock-stars who begin to believe they can change the world (witness Bono), they spout forth about a fashionably recovered communism (Žižek), attempt to become the psychoanalysist of the globe (Kristeva), or hold forth with a deep sense of originality concerning permeability and vulnerability (Butler).
Given that the turbo-prof has been enabled by the advent of cheap oil and thereby cheap air travel, one wonders what in the hell he or she will do after Peak Oil.
Perhaps more a tendency among most of us than a type, being thin-skinned seems to be part of being those introverted, cerebral, touchy, weird people known as intellectuals. Ideas belong to our innermost selves, it seems. We sleep with them, eat with them, wash with them, crap with them, walk with them, talk with them and (when given a chance) talk about them. So when someone even dares to question a treasured idea, a mode of expression, suggesting a revision perhaps, we may feel as though it’s an attack on our very being. Or at least you do until a mechanism develops for growing a few extra layers of tough hide.
But some never seem to gain those layers. So a rejection of a paper is the reason to ponder leaving the intellectual life entirely. A harsh review or some jibe sends the perpetually thin-skinned into a months-long depression, which is of course just a little self-centred (the world is out to get me!). In some cases, the matter gets a little out of hand, the thin-skinned starts blaming her or his evil colleagues and occasionally dispatches a few to the other life.
Seriously, lets get some perspective here. Who gives a flying fuck whether the Northern Farmers Weekly is less than enthused by your piece on body modification or the global benefits of postcolonial biblical criticism. Maybe there’s one or two more important things going on.
The Best Friend
For some reason that is beyond me, some academics try to be their students’ ‘best friend’. They drink together, text together, facebook together, laugh together … Lectures become a vast exercise in winning new friends – see, I’m a lovely person, how can you not like me? Instead of focussing on the teaching, all the focus is on the person. After all, how can you be a good teacher without being a nice, gentle, likeable person. It may not be conscious, but it can be manifested in a desire not to appear mean, or to tell people they are wrong, or to give low marks; in short, the best friend is afraid of hurting people’s feelings. The catch is that students are not silly and very quickly take advantage of the new sucker. It matters not whether they are little 5 year-old shits or 19 year-old university students.
The best friend also tends to have favourites, dividing a class into goats and sheep. So one group is favoured over against the other, receiving the best marks, the most lavish attention. Arguably, this has been enhanced by internet contact between students and lecturers. Take facebook: what exactly does it mean to be a facebook ‘friend’? What happens if you ‘unfriend’ a lecturer whom you have ‘friended’ in a moment of weakness? Is this the end of your ‘friendship’?
I must admit that I used to fall into this type, albeit before facebook, internet, even mobile phones. That was when – for my sins – I taught Greek and Latin at a private school in Sydney (what was I thinking? Ah yes, there was a baby on the way and I needed a job). I was 20 when I started, bearded, long-haired and smoking a pipe. For the first few weeks I wore shorts and sandals in the summer, until the headmaster took me aside and mentioned one simply could not wear shorts at such a respectable establishment without wearing long socks to cover those bare legs. So next day I turned up with sandals, shorts and long socks.
Anyway, while all the students thought I was a dope-smoking hippie, I thought I could be their best friend, telling jokes, sharing laughs, giving high marks, not telling anyone when they were wrong or being little shits, etc. … and they walked all over me. After about a year I figured out a way to get back at them.
Given that in such establishments the boys would play only Rugby (Union), I was allocated a low-level team to train. I had never played the game of this football code in my life. As my team was slaughtered week after I week, I hit upon a brilliant scheme. Drawing upon my knowledge of classical Greece, I decided we would develop a new tactic: the phalanx. The idea was to protect the ball carrier with a wall of defensive players. So we trained for some weeks, forming a phalanx after a penalty and then practising running in tight formation. Finally, the auspicious day of revealing the phalanx to the world arrived. For some reason, an inordinately large number of parents were present to see their precious offspring play. The game began, a penalty eventuated and I gave the signal. The phalanx formed, much to the puzzlement of the opposing team, and set off at a trot. Just then, one of the boys in the middle tripped and brought the whole lot down in tangle of arms and legs. I spluttered on my pipe, the parents looked grimly in my direction, the boys never forgave me. That was the end of being a best friend.
Bitter and Twisted
I suspect we have all met the bitter and twisted scholar, one who takes solace in the bottle, vituperation or whatever else to black out the disillusionment. The basic problem with B&T is that he once believed in the glories of the intellectual life, in the institution (be it university, college or school) as a beacon of light in a barbarous world. After all, is this not what a ‘vocation’ is, a higher calling to ideals beyond the ordinary man and woman? Are not students the great hope for a better world, whom the scholar may prepare and shape? In short, B&T loves the place and what it stands for. The problem is that at some point or other, our B&T realises with a crunch that the love was never returned, for the institution couldn’t give a rat’s arse about your wellbeing, indeed, it wouldn’t piss on you even if on fire. Now the students become conniving little shits about to lead the world to ruin, colleagues become small-minded back-stabbers, and the discipline has just puked all over itself. The smile becomes a lop-sided grimace, in which the foot of a consumed student sometimes gets caught.
Sometimes, in a moment of clarity, the B&T gets the hell out of the place and recovers some sanity. More often, the B&T takes it out on others. Anonymous reviews and refereeing are among the favourite sites for B&Ts, apart from the routine belittlement of students and undermining of colleagues. It may be a journal article, a book proposal or perhaps even a grant application. B&T now deploys every means to tear the author into little pieces that can never be reassembled: personal attacks, disdain, questions concerning intelligence or the ability to put a sentence together, mutterings about unscrupulous deeds – nothing is off limits, for the anonymous review relieves one of that annoying thing known as libel or defamation. And when retirement looms, B&T does his or her level best to screw the despised institution for as much as loot as possible and enjoy an unhappy retirement. Of course, B&T should never have believed in the place at all.
The Intellectual Hit-Man
I must admit I am quite fond of the intellectual hit-man. Some great scholars have undertaken such tasks: Henri Lefebvre at the behest of the Parti Communiste Francaise, or Georg Lukács with The Destruction of Reason (1952). Basically a broadside against Western thought since Hegel, it attempts to trace the growth of irrationalism, and thereby fascism and imperialism. Breathtaking in its ambition, skewering, among many others, Kierkegaard (‘prophet of bourgeois decadence’), Nietzsche (‘hysterical brutality is always an intrinsic sign of decadence’), Weber, Mannheim, Schmitt and even a spate of Western Marxists. But perhaps its real beauty is in images such as the Grand Hotel Abyss: ‘A beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered’ (p. 22).
Here we must include Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism from 1908. Taking a ‘common sense’ realist approach, in which science gradually approaches the objective reality ‘out there’, Lenin attacks the philosophy of Avenarius and Mach, fashionable among some young Bolsheviks to his left, as a species of phenomenalism that may be traced back to Bishop Berkeley. His position is quite unremarkable and widespread even today: we may come to know, by ‘reflection’, the way things exist independently of our minds, but our ability to perceive that external world is held back by our own limitations so that our knowledge ‘reflects’ external reality only approximately. But Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was also aimed at Bogdanov’s greater influence among the Bolshevik intellectuals (Lenin always had the support of the larger number of workers). As the product of a highly skilled hit-man, the book was a brilliant success, since Bogdanov was spectacularly ‘taken out’. Soon enough Lenin would return to Hegel (in the library in Berne in 1914) and rediscover a more dialectical approach.
Usually, the work of a hit-man is understood to be less-than-honourable, a compromise of intellectual integrity, in which one uses whatever influence one has to neutralise a specified target. But as a specific type of scholarship, it requires fine skill and marksmanship to do the job properly.
The Legendary Pisspot
Given the fact that many scholars love whatever is distilled, brewed and fermented, and given the fact that long-term and serious alcohol consumption destroys the ability of the brain to function (via the battered dendrites), the collective loss of brain function among intellectuals is stupendous. The term ‘brain drain’ gains a whole new meaning.
But I am not interested in the conference binge, in which the hardy warriors show their true mettle by turning up and delivering a paper after three nights and days on the piss. Nor am I interested in that old adage, which applies especially to scholars: ‘beer: helping ugly people have sex since 3000 BCE’.
No, I am interested in the truly legendary lush. Here I suspect we all have stories. It may be the lecturer who turns up for the 9.00 am lecture, pours himself a coffee and then tops it up with a liberal dash of whisky. Suddenly realising that he has done so in front of scores of students, he calmly looks them straight in the eye and says, ‘I have a cold’. Or it may be the head of department who offers you a massive shot of sherry – at an 8.00 am meeting in his office. Or the bedraggled professor decked out with his permanent sunglasses, who, at the first flush of light on orientation day, leans into his bag, pulls out a bottle of sake and pours it neat into his coffee mug (what are coffee mugs for, after all?). Or the once brilliant scholar who stuns his students with a scintillating lecture, full of witty repartee and insight – only to repeat it word for word, gesture for gesture, intonation for intonation, the following week, and then the one after that.
One may be moved to ask, what happened to such-and-such? The answer (as was once given to me): the occasional bottle of wine for breakfast is probably fine, but every morning …
But it does raise the question as to why? It’s been a while since the first impetus to human civilisation took place, namely the growing of grain for the dual purpose of producing bread and beer – the staples of life. And unlike the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians, wine and beer are no longer regarded as gods. We might joke about the medicinal bottle of ‘aqua vitae’, but unlike the monks who invented the distilling of spirits, I have yet to find someone who actually believes it. It would be even more difficult to find someone who argues that hitting the bottle is a way of warding off the Black Death, as was common in Europe’s Middle Ages. And it has been a long time since a parliament passed a law such as ‘An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn’ – as happened in England in 1690. At a pinch, you might get away with arguing that fermented or distilled beverages are the only way of ensuring that the water is purified.
More likely is a combination of too many social misfits in the one place, the grim realisation that you won’t be the next Confucius or Plato, and a desire to get back at the brain that turned you into an intellectual in the first place.
Unctuous is probably the best way to describe the name-dropper. Sickeningly smooth, oily, cool – the name-dropper has picked up somewhere that first name basis is the form of serious scholarly activity. ‘Yeah … I’ll just hang out with Julia for a while, he announces, chin-wag for a bit on my latest idea. Or maybe Judith would be interested over a cup of coffee. Or perhaps Jürgen …’. Of course, the name-dropper has neither met these people nor has he or she any clear idea whatsoever. Little matter, for these are extraneous paraphernalia in the world of scholarship.
You meet them everywhere. At a conference, your colleague waves and calls ‘hi’ to Harry, Gertrude and Jane. The aforesaid Harry, Gertrude and Jane may be thinking, who the f&#k is that idiot? At a faculty meal table, an obnoxious lush will begin talking loudly across a busy table to no-one in particular: ‘Remember that time we hit the town with Fred and Richard and Susan? And then Richard said to me, “why don’t you come at give a lecture at Harvard? Maybe we can edit a book together?”’ Problem is, Richard had said, ‘Bugger off, you frigging piss-pot!’
It matters not, for the name-dropper’s purpose is to let you know how small you are, for she is supposedly one of those belonging to the inner circle. Like titles and positions and obscene pay packets, the core elements of the academic life are the first names of apparently famous people you can reel off to any who may or (more likely) may not want to listen.
The One in the Position of Superior Knowledge
This scholarly type is arguably one of the most annoying and at the same time a quality I can display at my worst moments. You know the move: mention a book you are reading, and TOPS will say, ‘You’ll find that the other book by that author is a far better one’. Send a brief email expressing an opinion or mentioning someone and TOPS will swamp you with an epistle trying to show that your opinion doesn’t stand up or that TOPS knows this person way, way better than you. Mention in passing a comment on the weather, swimming or motorcycles, and TOPS will give a half-hour lecture on yearly weather patterns, how one should really do freestyle, or the history of two-wheeled motorised propulsion. Or TOPS will enter into a conversation by asking, ‘Did you know that …?’ And then trot out some mind-numbingly useless piece of trivia to show how stupid you are. Or perhaps, ‘Have you heard of such-and-such?’ Of course you haven’t, at which point TOPS will swoop and opine that such-and-such is crucial to the topic you are studying and that you really are remiss for not having encountered him. Forget that there is a good reason why this half-brained pretender has been forgotten in the first place.
TOPS feels a need to indicate by myriad patterns that he or she is in the position of superior knowledge, that the command of every field of knowledge is a cinch, that he or she always knows more than you.
So why does this type come close to home? It is not my usual way of operating and I don’t use aforesaid strategies, except in one circumstance: when I meet someone who reminds me in some way of my father, for he could be a TOPS. Usually I hit my favourite email button – delete – or say in the midst of a conversation, ‘Gotta piss’, and slip away with relief. But occasionally, when tired or no longer able to put up with a TOPS, I fall into a similar mode and argue back. Thankfully, that has happened with perhaps two or three people in the world, so I don’t have the opportunity to show this charming trait all too often. When I do encounter someone like that and when I find myself responding in the same manner, I pursue two paths. One is to vow not to do it again; the other is to make a mental note to forget about aforesaid interlocutor and leave him or her to annoy others.
The Chardonnay Socialist
Being a late bloomer, I remember first coming across this term some time ago as I was meandering down a street full of tables and chairs out the front of trendy cafes. A man whose face showed every single one of the rough years he’d experienced, called out at the double-soy-latte-sippers, ‘f&#kin’ chardonnay socialists!’
A curse that is found all too often in academia, the CS (or what the French call the ‘gauche caviar’) likes to foster worthy causes, such as ‘freeing’ Tibet, eco-spirituality, intersectionality, ‘minorities’ such as one-legged jackaroos, the ‘Arab spring’, Chinese ‘dissidents’, sanctions against North Korea, ‘free’ speech, Apple computers, ‘quality’ wine, the right to buy ‘edgy’ clothes at his or her favourite boutique, faddish hair dyes, Brazilians for all, and above all, ‘fair trade’ (no oxymoron there) coffee at the favourite café – for the good of the workers, after all, as well as my bloody hangover.
The CS organises panels at conferences and gives rousing left-wing liberal papers in the plush, chandeliered rooms of the Hilton or Marriott. Ideas matter; after all, we’re changing the world. Occasionally, she or he may actually join a demonstration, having ascertained that it is safe to do so, or send an email congratulating the local ‘Occupy’ group. The CS buys food at the over-priced organic shop (‘you get what you pay for’), watches avant-garde films from Kiribati and may occasionally write about them, and gets really militant when the fight is on for a pay rise.
However, when the snappy little new series VW beetle or Mini Couper is in for a service, the CS may actually find himself on a train. This is a rather distasteful business, for you never know if the CS will meet a ‘bogan’, or in US-parlance, a piece of ‘trailer-trash’. Should a skinny kid appear in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, a cigarette stuck in an ear and a bottle wrapped in a brown paper-bag, the CS inwardly scoffs, ‘I bet he hasn’t bought a ticket’.
Doceo, Ergo Pedicabo
Everyone has stories on this one. Statistics indicate – conservatively – that 25% of academics have had sex with students. It may be the postgraduate student, concerning which it was once said: ‘you either come to hate your supervisors or fall in love with them’. It may be an undergraduate student: each year a fresh crop in which one or two will always be willing. A for a lay; B for a blow-job …. As a would-be lecturer once said to a drunken group in the early hours of the morning: ‘I am going to have sex with as many students as I possibly can’.
Part of this is the erotics of knowledge, in which the juices get flowing over a new idea, or in which one is seduced by a thinker, or attracted to the words of a book. But it also manifests itself in the physical reality of the middle-aged professor out the front. As Indiana Jones found in his archaeology class, a pretty girl may bat her eyelids to reveal ‘Love you’ written on the lids in lipstick. As the severe professor with a bun and glasses may find, the male students in the back are fantasising over her discipline. Or as the student finds while standing looking at the notice board, the rampant professor may sidle up and ask what the problem is. ‘What does SPSC mean?’ asks the student. ‘Well, my boy, it doesn’t mean shapely-bottomed youth’, sniggers the prof. With that a hand gently grasps the student’s buttock. The examples are endless: the S&M lecturer setting up a meeting, the groping book editor who promises a contract for a feel …
Of course, the tradition begins with Plato – if one believes the perpetually reasserted fiction of the origins of Western thought in that Balkan country in Eastern Europe, namely, Greece. For Plato and his creation, Socrates, as the teacher penetrates the minds of students, awakening in them the desire to recover the knowledge lost at birth, so also does the teacher penetrate the other circular muscle of the male body in order to ensure everyone knows who is teacher and who the student.
The Petty-Bourgeois Life-Styler
Overlapping with the chardonnay socialist but not necessarily the same thing, the academic who is a petty-bourgeois life-styler has a distinct sense of his or her appropriate place in the social pecking-order. LS may initially seek an inner-city pad, preferably in a trendily post-alternative location. The squatters and underfed artists have long since disappeared, but their ghosts may still, in a wishful moment, haunt the streets. Despite a vague feeling of oneness with aborigines, ‘immigrants’ and refugees, those minorities can’t afford to live here. Although feeling a slight twinge of guilt about this, it suits LS quite nicely, since then they remain ideal causes.
But then, should a child or two happen to come along, the LS has two options. Either stay in such a location and join the tight-bodied mothers and fathers with jogging-strollers out on the promenade; or buy a house a little further out, but not too far, since then the LS would be in the dreaded wasteland of the suburbs. Now the cause of the most oppressed group in society – the ‘family’ with two small children – becomes the focus of LS’s life. As does the car with heated seats (in a colder climate), or a family sedan with aircon – Volvo of course, or its successor, for one buys those unbearably ugly vehicles only for safety and not due to any fetish for ‘freedom’ or ‘independence’.
Almost forgot the life of the mind: if it wasn’t for the children, the admin, the advocacy in LS’s scholarly organisation, the maintenance of a life appropriate to one’s standing, there would be time for a little more intellectual focus. But you can always do that in a café with colleagues. At least LS can always assert the status of intellectual to class others. Should a new office be on the cards and should there be a delay in the arrival of bookshelves, LS will draw upon all her class wrath and berate the guy moving the necessary appurtenances to the petty-bourgeois life of an academic: ‘I’m an academic! You may not understand this, but I must have bookshelves for my books’.
One of the most obnoxious of all scholarly types, he turns up for work decked out in a sleek business-suit, finely patterned power-socks and expensive Italian shoes. His hair is sprinkled with grey and he is a little heavy around the jowls and waist – all to give a suitable impression of power. Or she steps out of her expensive car in a black power suit, hair cut short or held back in a suitably masculine way, speaking in the clipped fashion of one who wishes to assert herself. Either one would easily find a home in the financial sector (except many of those are now out of work …).
‘A university is a corporation’, is the business(wo)man’s tiresomely repeated motto. So he seeks links with circles of thugs, exploiters and sleek criminals – sorry, ‘businesses’. She fosters business practices such as ‘performance management’, sees collegiality as a threat to a properly servile workplace, treats staff as nuisances who are bleeding the university dry, replaces full-time staff with casual or adjunct lecturers, appoints her buddies from the business world to cushy positions, and yet thinks that she is grossly underpaid at half a million per year.
All the while, he reiterates the old mantra that universities are not in the ‘real world’, for that world is one of the cut and thrust of deals, profits, money-making and so forth (a fulfilling aim in life it is). But here, in the ‘unreal world’ people are incompetent, inept and simply a loss to society at large. What to do? Smash those pesky unions and their mafia ‘bosses’, toss out the many useless staff in order to teach them a lesson in the ‘real world’, and ensure that the council approves a hefty pay rise for such worthy ventures.
‘At some point in their lives, scholars start growing onions’. So said Manning Clark, the author of a majestic if somewhat controversial history of Australia. But what’s wrong with growing onions? Nothing, but when one begins to show a life-consuming interest in a pursuit like growing onions, the flow of ideas has stopped and the writing ceases. Now all of that careful attention to reading, discussion, the growth of ideas and writing itself shifts to something else. Now growing seasons, types of soil, varieties of onion, fertilisers, gardening tools … all these become the focus of life.
All manner of new passions may turn up: a fascination with miniature ships in bottles, cockroach races, the art of toilet bowls, triathlons, beer-brewing, hobby farms, property investment, or, commonly, a long stint in administration. And it may happen at any time. For some, the PhD thesis is the last burst of writing, after which the thought of writing anything else leaves them pale and quivering. For others, it may be after the first book, or during a mid-life crisis, or because the people from whom they have borrowed ideas have disappeared. Universities need such people, of course, for otherwise who would have time to undertake the myriad and mundane tasks that make a university tick? One may in fact argue that the system is structured to assume that at some point or other a goodly number will in fact start growing onions.
In many respects, there is a curiously natural dimension to this process. And onion-growers can be great company, full of immense stores of information about all sorts of unexpected pursuits. But what is interesting is the type of narrative put forward to account for the shift. The best option is to be up front and say, ‘shit, I have no new ideas and no desire to write’. As one senior admin person said to me simply, ‘I finished my projects’. But most do not face up to it so directly. So you find the OG saying, ‘Just a few years in admin and then I’ll be clear to write’. Or, ‘I’m using the system to find space for myself so I can get back to research’. Or, ‘I will just establish this new program/college/discipline and then I’ll be able to write’. Or, ‘I’m simply so busy I have no time for reading and research just now’. Or, ‘I’ll do it in the holidays’, but then the holidays become a time to look forward to getting back to whatever it is that prevents one from writing. Or, ‘After I write these few blog posts and facebook updates and tweet a few people, then I’ll write’. Or, ‘must check the vegies’, which takes days at a time. Or, ‘I must bottle my latest batch of beer’. And if OG is called upon to present a paper at a conference, the paper merely regurgitates material from 20 years ago. The excuses are endless, but they all operate with the basic narrative of a significant hurdle that needs to be overcome before one can return to writing. Of course, the hurdle becomes permanent, the narrative a bit thin, and the ideas have long since decided to move on.
Not so much the ‘Doceo, ergo pedicabo’, the seducer is a more subtle type of scholar. In this case, the scholar in question uses not strong argument but the techniques of seduction to win over an audience.
Picture the scene: a not unattractive man or woman is before a reasonable audience, whether a class, a conference session, or indeed the wider public. He begins in a somewhat quiet way, but then catches himself, draws breath and begins again. Now the voice has a mellifluous intonation to it, deployed to full advantage. He teases, hints, smiles, jokes, suggesting between the lines outrageous possibilities and the soft attraction of a glass of wine, a quiet evening, a vigorous romp – all while ostensibly talking about the history of concrete. Women and men wait in lines afterwards to say hello, to offer praise …
Or she invokes a certain huskiness in her voice, moves her body to accentuate certain assets, flicks her hair, looks out from under lowered brows, offers a half-smile, sensuous puns and allusions, with the glimmer of more, far more possibilities for the groupies. And groupies there are: I have seen grown men with their mouths open and tongues hanging out after such a session, mobbing the speaker, saying it was the best lecture they have ever heard …
The seducer takes the erotics of knowledge to a whole new level, drawing upon age-old skills involved in the art of persuasion. And often the seducer has been used to the attentions of men and women for some time, is able to call them forth and bend them to his or her own advantage. Yet the seducer is not a flirt, for the difference is that flirting is a fine skill that does not lead to seduction. Instead, the seducer has learned that in the cut-throat world of the competition of ideas, the hint of sex sells.
Like the advertiser trying to sell a shonky product, the seducer has developed such a strategy precisely because he or she has never really had a good argument at all. Or perhaps the seducer is like the minister or priest, who notes in his sermons: ‘weak point; shout here!’
Increasingly the intellectual world is saturated with grants. Increasingly institutions measure their status in terms of grants gained. And increasingly scholars are expected to secure grants. Quite a few years ago, I realised that the world is full of billions of dollars of grants and it shouldn’t be that difficult to get hold of some. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it requires a whole set of specific and dubious skills to make that task easier. Obviously, this type comes a little closer to home, since I have been in the game of grantsmanship for some time.
I used to be in awe of former colleague who was able to write up grants pretty much for anyone, with one proviso: you needed a very good track record. Producing a winnable proposal is a relative cinch after that. In other words, the grantsman begins preparation a decade earlier, before actually launching into applications. But now that I am a little more aware of the unenviable skills of the grantsman, I no longer hold this scholar in awe.
But how exactly does a grantsman go about his or her task? The first thing to realise is that it is a massive game of spin. Assessment panels rarely know of an applicant’s work first hand, so they rely purely on what is in the application in order to allocate massive amounts of funds. Buzz-words, hot topics, structure that invites readers in so that they don’t want to throw it away. Some institutions provide special seminars on how to ‘frame’ or ‘tilt’ the application in a certain way. One example: since the attack on the World Trade Centre in September, 2001, massive amounts of cash have been given for projects on ‘terrorism’, Islam, border security and related areas. Suddenly there were specialists in these topics everywhere, spitting out grants applications with all the appropriate hot buttons pressed. However, I have yet to find one entitled ‘Osama Bin Laden: The Patron Saint of Research on Border Protection’.
Second, grants are usually given for business-as-usual. Since the track record is so crucial and since the grantsman needs to show that he or she has a background in the area, a grantsman will promise to do more of the same. Or at least pretend to do so. Since the genuinely new idea will never get funded, it must shelter under the same old thing, waiting the opportunity to get to work.
Third, the grantsman knows never to ask for money for a brand new project – this is old advice from the science grantsmen. Make sure a project is half complete, for then the grantsman will be able to outline the project very specifically, provide clear objectives, expected outcomes. Anyone who says they want to explore a topic and see what happens hasn’t got a chance. If successful, the grantsman will then be able to complete the project in half the time or less for the grant and get on with the next project, for which another grant will then be developed …
Fourth, the grantsman knows that one should never actually say what one will really do. Propose one book in three years, perhaps a dozen articles, and the assessment panel implicitly recognises the codes of ‘feasability’. Never, ever does the grantsman say he will write one very, very good article, since that is lazy. She will not propose to write three books, or thirty articles, or run around the globe, since that is not human.
Fifth, to those who have more will be given. For those on $60,000 or more year – of course, they need yet more money to undertake research. No granting body would dream of saying, ‘hey listen, rich dude, you don’t need money to do what you propose to do; use some of your “own” money’. But this slogan also applies to grants: the grantsman knows that already having a few grants always increases the chance of getting more.
Finally, obtaining grants can be an excellent distraction from actual writing. Get a team together, get some teaching relief, employ a research assistant or three, organise symposia and conferences, engage in public policy work, edit a shitload of journals and books – for the grantsman is aware that obtaining a grant is a crucial aim of scholarly life.
How many academics are frustrated novelists, poets and literati? How many attempt to vent this frustration with literary flourishes in articles and books? It may be a sentence like this: ‘His work is sui generis, a tumbling stream of consciousness that swishes and swirls in egregious eddies around its slippery subject’. Or it may be, ‘She is inevitably outdone by doughty defenders of the sublime sanctuary of the book, who intone the inscrutable inheritance of tract scribblers and podium pounders who fulminated and fumed against the trespasses of modern thought’. Or one can write like a fish: ‘I love to swim straight out into the middle of the ocean, but this is often curtailed by grinning great white pointers and assorted cousins. I can go from 0 to 70 kilometres per hour faster than a Porsche and with better brakes’.
In this respect the wordsmith is like the journalist who loves to produce bad puns and excruciating alliteration. Go to any newspaper and you are bound to find examples such as ‘Rudd Wreaks Revenge’, or ‘Finding Mojo: How Mothers Can Get Their Groove Back’, or ‘Arbib Pitches for a Sporting Life’, or ‘Bronto Burger off the Stone Age Menu’ (reporting that a new fast-food chain, Paleo, ‘takes inspiration from the Stone Age to create primal gastronomy’), or ‘Mariners Slip Off the Hook’, or ‘Champagne Flows as Local Drop Loses Its Sparkle’. All these come from one issue of one newspaper.
What is it with the wordsmith? Is there a string of rejected novels or poems? Is there an unhealthily high sense of self-importance that makes the wordsmith feel he or she is better than the novels studied over the years? Has someone, a kindergarten teacher perhaps, said, ‘you write really well’? (The teacher meant handwriting …) Is the wordsmith really a sadist out to inflict untold suffering on his or her many few readers? Or is the wordsmith just a hack whose scribbled lines should best be bundled into a plastic bag, brick attached, and dumped in the bay?
Recall the moment. You are talking with a smart-dressed man or woman (thanks ZZ-Top) at a conference gathering or reception. He looks directly at your name badge to ascertain your position in the intellectual pecking order. Given that you are a from a lowly University of Wadonga, the interest switches off, he tolerates the conversation about as much as having bamboo shoots shoved up his fingernails, and his eyes rove the room seeking a more important person with whom to talk. Within seconds such a person appears. He touches your arm in the middle of your sentence and says: ‘Great to catch up, but I really must go and talk to such-and-such’.
Also known as the M&S (mover and shaker), the networker dresses snappily, is always striding to yet another (mythical) appointment, heels clicking decisively on the parquet floor. The networker is always editing a new book, planning a new, ‘cutting-edge’ conference panel, negotiating a visit to a suitably important institution, scouting the book displays for the right people into which one might bump. The networker always has no more than six minutes for anyone, dealing out time in eminently efficient units – unless of course it is a really ‘big name’. In the clusters of drinking groups at the end of a long conference day, the networker will be found only with the VIPS. The networker knows everyone in the ‘field’, fitting them into the vast scale of peons below him and the few ‘stars’.
Of course, the networker aspires to join the constellation of seedy and worn-out ‘stars’ as well. But the networker does not realise that he is nothing more than a dag on a sheep’s bum, a piece of shit knotted in the hairs of a ‘star’s’ arse.
The Impact Tart
The Impact tart, or iTart, is increasingly common in intellectual life. Let me give a couple of examples.
An air-headed ‘colleague’ flounces up to you and says, ‘Oh, this is wonderful!’
You offer a stunned and puzzled look.
‘I’ve just been invited’, he says, ‘to become a member of the Academy of the Social Sciences’.
‘Impact’, he says, ‘it’s all about impact. They’ve recognised the impact of my scintillating article in International Scoot!, “Riding as/with … the Baotian Monza 125cc Motor Scooter”’.
‘Really’, you say.
‘Oh, and one just needs to know someone who will nominate you’, he says.
Or you meet a somewhat flashy but shallow ‘colleague’ at a conference reception. After the obligatory and inane pleasantries, she flicks a blond curl out of her eyes and says, ‘I’ve just been made a professor’.
Again that pause as you desperately try to keep your jaw from plummeting to the ground.
‘Is that because of …?’ you say.
‘Oh yes’, she says, ‘the radio show, the newspaper column … Impact; it’s all about impact’.
Scholars, like lapdogs, have a knack of slavishly following the latest arbitrary directive from the powers that be. In the last little while a key element has been the ‘impact factor’ or ‘esteem factor’. Given that it is well-nigh impossible to peer into the crystal ball and determine who will be read and studied in a century or so from now, and given that scholars want to be stars today, if not yesterday, all manner of external signs of one’s ‘impact’ may now be listed.
Universities themselves offer the iTart fertile ground. At the appropriate section of one’s own university web-page (also the favoured ground for the Self-Seller), one may tick any or all of the following: a gong; cash prize; consultancy; election to an academy; honorary doctorate; expert media commentary; reality television show appearance; large ugly ring (signalling a habilitation); Swiss bank account, for aforesaid cash prize …
More and more journals make the iTart drool, for they claim to have a certain ‘impact factor’. Produced through an entirely ‘scientific’ process, the journal may claim an utterly meaningless number such as 3.2567 as its impact factor.
And more and more email messages end with an elaborate signature that reads like a mini-CV, full of titles, strange letters after one’s name, achievements, the latest book and so on. For instance, I recently came across the following:
Professor Richard (Dick) Whacker, DSO, FAHA, RIPA, JeRKR
The Steggles Chicken Professor of Circular Argumentation, Social Disharmony and Mystification
The Centre for Neo-Lysenkoist Studies
Editor of the Journal of Slander, Libel and Defamation
My most recent book is Running Free Range: Foul Holidays on the North Coast
Motto for old age: don’t waste an erection, don’t pass a toilet, NEVER trust a fart.
All of them are of course external signs, flashy baubles that desperately try to conceal the fact that there is little of actual substance to such impact. If you want to talk about real impact, grab a sledgehammer and smash up a bathroom.
Picture a drearily common situation in an intellectual’s life: a meeting. With a barely perceptible swagger, a decidedly unlikeable sort with a fang-bearing sneer walks in the room and immediately chooses the highest seat, preferably located at the head of a table. As the meeting gets under way, our friend affects a bored look, picks his nose or digs out some earwax when a perceived opponent is speaking. If a serious proposal comes forward that runs against his opinion, he or a lieutenant interrupts with a snide comment or simply cuts the speaker off. An evident disdain, a voice that is sharp and menacing, an assertion of power … meet the bully.
For some reason bullies are like flies on shit in academic life. Perhaps it is the self-perpetuating bureaucracy that attracts them, perhaps it is the opportunity to lord it over snivelling students, perhaps it is the unrivalled possibility of cutting people down.
The bully’s real approach to the world is more like a dog-pack or a shrewdness (yes, a shrewdness) of apes. He assumes that he is top dog or silver-back, full of barking, snapping and hairy chest-beating. In other words, bullies effortlessly blend an unhealthily high opinion of themselves with a sneering dismissal of the no-hopers around them. Of course, our irrepressibly endearing character usually feels that she or he is upholding the true values of the intellectual life dog-pack and that those who do not meet such high standards are no better than curs and strays.
The only friends a bully has are those who assume his view of world, which of course has him at the top. The jump at his bark, quaver at his jungle yell. A slavering pack of doctoral students perhaps, a collection appointees who know who’s boss. Everyone else is a victim who needs either to be brought to heel or dispatched to the outer darkness.
The bully’s creed is: denigrate, intimidate, isolate, and crush. Jokes are shared between the bully and his underlings, always targeted at their victims. Passing a victim in the corridor, the bully or one of his attack dogs lets slip a whispered comment, ‘what idiot let you in here?’ They love to pass on innuendo and rumour, the more personal the better: ‘did you hear that Joe’s PhD was written by someone else’; ‘wasn’t that the most useless paper you’ve ever heard?’; ‘you know, Jim’s a member of a weirdo cult’; ‘Bill has bleeding haemorrhoids and leaves rings on seats’; ‘Mary drinks metho in between class’.
The bully works behind the scenes to isolate an apparent danger to his own fiefdom, blocking involvement or promotion, removing that person from supervision, neglecting to mention staff gatherings. Rules? They are merely tools for asserting power. A bully loves to use a faceless and opaque system to his or her advantage. Institute a review of a victim that takes forever, don’t pass on any detailed information, order an underling to send regular messages saying the review is ‘serious’ but that it will take time to complete. Organise a meeting to discuss, but then delay it once again.
Yet you may wonder: a nerdy intellectual as a bully? Come on! One usually associates the bully with a football forward, ice-hockey thug, a colourful crim or the odd burly cop. Yet, a bully with half a brain is arguably more dangerous than one with none at all – although the stress falls, it must be said, on the half, and that’s being generous.
But let me shift the metaphor: the bully delights in identifying those who seem to fly higher than he is able. Recalling the old saying – occasionally eagles can fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles – the bully sets out to clip the eagles’ wings and keep them on a low flight path.
Mention in passing a place you may wish to visit, a comment on the weather, a liking of dumplings, the pleasure of emptying an overfull bladder, anything really, and the crapper will hold forth for an hour or two on the topic in question. It matters not whether it is the mating habits of Greenlandic polar bears, the weather in Morocco, tenth-century Burmese literature, the films and actors that have won those strange awards given in the USA (the ‘Academy’ awards), the dietary habits of the Sultan of Brunei, or the differences in migratory patterns of German and American cockroaches, he or she is willing to give you the ins and outs, aboves and belows, historical context and much, much more. It matters not that no-one else is willing to listen since the crapper assumes that everyone is hanging on every precious word that streams from his or her mouth.
Crapping is one of the less endearing manifestations of a life spent lecturing students who appear to be lapping it all up. Soon enough it slips outside the lecture room and into everyday life. Is there not a whole world to enlighten, to spread the inestimable store of knowledge that the crapper contains? From the moment he wakes until sleep descends – if not beyond those moments – the crapper’s life involves emitting one long stream of endless, utterly useless information. Give the crapper a drink or more and she becomes a veritable encyclopaedia of trivia, able to talk for hour upon hour. Indeed, at times those not given to doing so in sober states will turn into drunken crappers.
But another type of crapper may also be found in academia: the writer of texts. Too often is the metaphor of giving birth used for the writing of books. Gestation may be months if not years, but when the birth finally happens, the author holds the baby gently in his or her hands, checking to see if it has five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot. But far more appropriate is the image of taking a massive dump. It may come easily, sliding out with quick relief. Or it may build up over time, becoming a massive and somewhat painful affair, before it is laid before the world with immense effort. Universities love the quick crapper, for this helps them attain an enviable ranking in the university shit-stakes.
This type of crapper comes a little close to home, although I have always enjoyed the loose and easy version, enabled by plenty of roughage, rather than the compacted and swollen version that threatens serious injury on its emergence. The catch, of course, is that even though you feel as though you have finally shitted it out, you are always full of more shit.
Solidarity is the comrade’s slogan. As a budding, if somewhat over-energetic, postgraduate student, he was always engaged in university politics for left-leaning groups. Socialists, greenies, queers, refugees, women … all were worthwhile causes in which to be immersed to one’s eyeballs, and beyond. It was all about the brotherhood, the sisterhood, the queerhood, the greenhood.
As a young lecturer, he was the most faithful at union meetings, even taking up a post every now and then, arguing with management, leading strikes – all for his comrades. He kept up his energetic engagement with politics outside the weird world of academia. Sleep is, after all, a luxury for the ruling class.
Not much time passed before our comrade found himself moving up the ranks, gaining ever more senior positions with significant gravitas. From management’s perspective he was an efficient operator; he was a tough negotiator whose skills might come in handy; he seemed to be able to land grants on trendy topics like one-legged queer cowboys. After all, innovation is the name of the game.
From the comrade’s perspective, this was the chance for which he had been longing. At last, he could exercise power to help other comrades. He would secure funds to appoint more comrades; he would influence selection panels at other institutions in favour of yet more comrades; he would gather a team of comrades to undertake ground-breaking, trail-blazing, cutting-edge research that would change the very terms of debate (on a topic yet to be determined); he would transform the institution from within for a better world – all for the comrades of course.
Until that moment. A job is advertised at another institution, a rather attractive position from anyone’s perspective. One or two comrades there encourage, urge, beg him to apply. Our comrade decides to apply … only to find that another comrade is also applying. What to do? This other scholar is younger, brighter, more promising. Above all, she doesn’t have a position at all, for in the current climate such younger scholars have to scrabble together the bits and pieces of an intellectual life.
So what to do? The comradely act would be to withdraw the application. Does not our comrade already have a position? Well … yes … but … there’s the three houses to maintain, the sports-car, the antique clocks, the jet-set lifestyle. And in case you object, no one ever said a lefty couldn’t be rich.
But isn’t she a comrade? Get lost! She’s no comrade, just a competitor. In fact, that upstart, that whipper-snapper hasn’t really shown him the respect due to a leading world authority.
No wonder she hasn’t got a position!
So the ‘comrade’ accepts the position. He still talks the talk, but the walk has gone in a different direction. And for some strange reason he cannot comprehend, people, especially the younger ones, have stopped listening.
The ‘Deep’ Thinker
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, ‘his heart is not in the right place’. 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 individuals’. 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: ‘we all have 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, Hegel or Heidegger 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 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.