academics as wankers

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).

There’s plenty of ways to do this – piss off everyone else at a seminar – but I recently experienced an excellent example of how to do this. Begin by spreading your arms to encompass everyone present and saying, ‘thank you for coming to listen to my paper, based on my important research. I am honoured that so many of you have come to listen to me’. Forget the fact that people have gathered to listen to a number of papers, not yours alone. And forget the fact that you have arrived late, while everyone else has arrived a little before time. Then, speak way over your time allocation in a way that indicates your own sense of the rivetting importance of what you have to say. Make sure that you have plenty of graphs and charts to give your presentation a whiff of credibility. Couple that with some of the most bigotted assumptions you can manage. In other words, couch your racism, religious intolerance and national chauvinism in massaged statistics. Finally, reveal so many problems with your rant that the rest of those present simply can’t be bothered listening or engaging. This provides you with a sense that what you have presented is so persuasive that no one has an answer.

Comrade Iosef is a pretty good read, although few do take the time to read his work carefully. Here’s some of his thoughts on useless scholarship.

To begin with, he hasn’t got much time for metaphysicians:

This reminds me of the Russian metaphysicians of the fifties of the last century who pestered the dialecticians of those days with the question: is rain good or bad for the crops? and demanded a ‘precise’ answer (Collected Works, vol 1, p. 49).

But the best has to be the tale of the anatomist:

Once upon a time there lived a ‘learned anatomist.’ He possessed ‘everything’ a ‘real’ anatomist requires: a degree, an operating room, instruments and inordinate pretensions. He lacked only one minor detail—knowledge of anatomy. One day he was asked to explain the connection between the various parts of a skeleton that were lying scattered on his anatomical table. This gave our ‘celebrated savant’ an opportunity to show off his skill. With great pomp and solemnity he set to ‘work.’ Alas and alack, the ‘savant’ did not know even the ABC of anatomy and was entirely at a loss as to how the parts should be put together so as to produce a complete skeleton!

The poor fellow busied himself for a long time, perspired copiously, but all in vain! Finally, when nothing had come of all his efforts and he had got everything mixed up, he seized several parts of the skeleton, flung them into a far corner of the room and vented his philosophic ire on certain ‘evil-minded’ persons, who, he alleged, had placed spurious parts of a skeleton on his table (Collected Works, vol 1, pp. 46-7).

Now that sounds like some scholars of ancient texts that I happen to know.

Precisely because of his own education, Mao had little time for the majority of scholars and their institutions.

After mentioning Lenin and Stalin as positive examples (in ‘On Practice’), he notes their opposite:

The saying, ‘without stepping outside his gate the scholar knows all the wide world’s affairs,’ was mere empty talk in past times when technology was undeveloped (Selected Readings, p. 70).

Adorno made a similar point concerning the philosopher who sits in his cottage with pencil and paper and is able to produce a system that explains the whole universe. But then (in ‘Reform our Study’) Mao notes the type of intellectual that pisses him off:

When making speeches, they indulge in a long string of headings, A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, 4, and when writing articles, they turn out a lot of verbiage. They have no intention of seeking truth from facts, but only a desire to curry favour by claptrap. They are flashy without substance, brittle without solidity. They are always right, they are the Number One authority under Heaven, “imperial envoys” who rush everywhere (Selected Writings, p. 203).

Sounds like a standard academic conference …

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