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.

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 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, all the lesser people, especially the younger ones, have stopped listening.

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.

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.

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’.

‘You? How?’

‘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.

(NB: the full ‘Typology of Scholars’ now has its own page. Items will be added from time to time.)

A pretentious wordsmith at work:

What was written in prescribed form and in the archive’s margins, what was written oblique to official prescriptions and on the ragged edges of protocol produced the administrative apparatus as it opened to a space that extended beyond it. Contrapuntal intrusions emanated from outside the corridors of governance but they also erupted – and were centrally located – within that sequestered space. Against the sober formulaics of officialese, these archives register the febrile movements of persons off balance – of thoughts and feelings in an out of place. In tone and temper they convey the rough interior ridges of governance and disruptions to the deceptive clarity of its mandates.

Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (2009), pp. 1-2. (ht cp)

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’ (here she joins the Name-Dropper).

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.