Teachers, Intellectuals, Politics

By Don Anderson

extracted and adapted from an earlier essay in the magazine 24 Hours

© all rights reserved

Saul Bellow may not have been your average Chicago high school kid, what with going on to receive the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, and the 1990 National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contributions to American letters; but his 1993 essay of reminiscence, “Writers, Intellectuals, Politics”, suggests that he was not alone at his school in the early 1930s in being an avid reader and talker.

The children of immigrants in any Chicago high school, however, believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their Macbeth and Milton’sL’Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well and went on inevitably to Lenin’s State and Revolution and the pamphlets of Trotsky. The Tuley High School debating club discussed the Communist Manifesto … On the recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and I remember, in my father’s bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value, Price and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street.

Whatever they were reading in high school in the 1930s, they were not reading ‘kiddielit’, not reading some soft-option confection under the auspices of the Chicago Children’s Book Council. Nor were they to go to the other extreme, reading Literary Theory, some 1930s version of Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Explained to Children.

Bellow, born in 1915, may be 20th century America’s greatest 19th-century realist novelist. His essays and novels alike show him contemptuous of Modernism (‘the Wastelanders’); it is possible that he considers Postmodernism beneath derision. Perhaps he is ‘out of tune with his time’, trying to ‘resuscitate a dead art’. Yet his recognition of the crisis of the intellectual and artist in America, as in any post-industrial metropolitan culture, still rings true: ‘To be an intellectual in the United States sometimes means to be immured in a private life in which one thinks but thinks with some humiliating sense of how little thought can accomplish’ (Paris Review, 1966). The novel has, since the days of Samuel Richardon’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747), has been the site of the examination of the complexities of that private life. Yet those who value the novel for this and other reasons, and literature (with or without a capital ‘L’) at large, are in these nervous 1990s often cast as conservatives, dinosaurs, out of touch with postmodernity.

In his oration at the funeral service for Allan Bloom in 1992, Bellow offered a traditional defence of literature, perhaps delivering its obsequies as well as Bloom’s: ‘I come of a generation, now largely vanished, that was passionate about literature, believing it to be an indispensable source of illumination of the present, of reflective power. That this defence of literature was offered in a funeral address for the author of the notorious The Closing of the American Mind may win it few friends among Postmodernists, anti-elitists, anti-traditionalists, antitraditional educationists.

Old men cast out from the zoo? For the Bellows and Blooms of the world, there is little doubt that the barbarians are not merely at the gate, but are ensconced and tenured within the citadel. It is surely significant that Edward W Said in his 1993 Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectual, insistently cites Julien Benda’s Jeremiad of 1927, La Trahison des Clercs (‘The Betrayal of the Intellectuals’), in talking about the way we live now. W.H. Auden’s words in his resonant elegy on W.B. Yeats perhaps take on a new urgency as we approach the millennium: ‘Intellectual disgrace/ Stares from every human face’. The crisis in contemporary culture and especially in the brave new post-Dawkins — where is that Osymandias today? — academy, resides in the curious phenomenon that many of those who would traditionally have defended the role of the intellect, if not of intellectuals, now deplore it and them as elitist and celebrate the Postmodern egalitarianisms of TV soaps, rock videos and talkback radio. There can be no doubt that universities ought to be egalitarian, anti-elitist institutions, but they best fulfil this function not by abrogating any sense of responsibility to two (?) thousand years of cultural heritage (not merely Western) in the destructively mistaken notion that students are best served by following ‘market forces’, aka their wishes, into TV soaps, videos and cybernetics. It’s not merely a matter of ‘My foot my tutor?’ as that Renaissance professor, Prospero, put it.

Where do our Cultural Studies professors find their evidence for their ‘market-driven’ claims? There are plenty of students in undergraduate classes today who are intensely engaged by that arch-Modernist and educational elitist, Ezra Pound. To be sure, they write about him differently than students did a generation ago, but they do so with, if anything, more commitment and passion than their predecessors. If ‘education’ means anything — and, yes, this etymology is disputed — then it means to ‘lead out’. To lead out of oneself, out of ignorance , out of darkness. Students — committed, intellectually agile and certainly not the merely privileged, for the successors to Saul Bellow’s first- generation immigrant Russians are alive and well on our campuses — are quite capable of reading against the grain, beyond the curriculum, even in the carrion’s mouth. And though, as some Cultural Studies commissars would have us believe. Erasmus may have been a flunkey to a Renaissance prince and Velazquez something of the same and Shakespeare an apologist for the Tudor monarchy, that does not mean that they were merely these things, and it certainly does not mean that their texts are merely expression of that, as any Postmodern, poststructural, carnivalesque professor of heterogloss??? ought to know. It is time Aristotle’s Physics and his distinctions within causality were taken down from the shelf and dusted off.

Which brings me to the essay by Professor Simon During of the Department of English and (Cultural Studies) at the University of Melbourne. During adopts a Foucaultian position with respect to knowledge and power. “Knowledge for its own sake [cf Schiller and Fichte] in facts meets very practical needs. And such knowledge’s outcomes — encyclopaedic breadth, objectivity and disinterestedness, the ideal of service, flexibility — are ideal prerequisites for a state bureaucrat.” It is difficult to reject his out of hand, especially when one recalls the Federal Minister on Education, Dr David Kemp, reassuring a university gathering some years ago that his government would honour traditional notions of tertiary education, and citing as a (mercantilist, managerial) reason the fact that large American firms were turning their backs on Business School graduates and head-hunting Philosophy majors.

So the traditional liberal-humanist defence of the Humanities within the academy is revealed for what it really is — a covert power ploy, the elite feathering its own nest. (But, pause, Foucaultians: may not this be truer of France, with its idiosyncratic educational and bureaucratic structures — see the documentations of Pierre Bourdieu in Homo Academicus — than it is of Australia?) When Professor During asserts, however, that ‘what actually triggered the emergence of academic English was an intensification of European national rivalries for global domination’, one would like rather more evidence. When he observes that ‘Nietzsche calls the bluff of the Schillerian humanist ideals: for him they have now become the bearers of a philistine statism’, one asks: semper, ubique, et ab omnibus? And when he uses the ‘academic’ anti-careers of Rimbaud, Jarry, and Walter Benjamin in a denunciation of the traditional university, one can only ask, “What kind of test is that?” It’s like judging an Australian university by the late Martin Johnston. There are rare students who, though they grace a campus like comets, bring more to it than it can ever give them. Education is a two-way process.

For Professor During, ‘The heyday of English literature as an academic discipline is over.’ It is losing ground to an interest in a wider spread of contemporary cultural forms (the Tyranny of the Now rather than the Shock of the New) ‘from advertising and the internet to cartoons and art movies — what we call cultural studies’. There you have it — the market-driven, kiddielit university. ‘My foot my tutor?’ mumbles Professor Prospero as he embraces Early Voluntary Retirement. (‘Well said, old mole’).

Yes, yes, I know — all those learned allusions to the ‘universal parent, Shakespeare’ (thank you Marianne Moore) show me up for what I am — an antiquate product of a hugely culturally specific and privileged (me, who was never a full-time student, who, like the essential Englishman in Ulysses might have as his proudest boast ‘I paid my way’?) class that has had its day. For I — I have failed in my effort to keep the first- person pronoun out of this — have been passed over, and what has succeeded me?

According to Professor During, who has seen the future and is still to discover if it works: ‘Behind the proliferation of such cultural studies subjects lie policy shifts but also, more profoundly, the deep economic transformation we can call globalisation.’ Which During seems here to embrace. He continues: ‘At the level of policy, contemporary educational bureaucracies have moved from idealist and collegial models to market, corporate and student-based [how did that tertium quid get into that trinity?] ones so that … student evaluations are a measure of quality-assessment.’ (My foot my tutor?’ V Ban Ban, Caliban. Get a new Master, get a new man’)

Surely one had a choice: merely to accept such interventionist restructuring of universities — and, historically speaking, to a large degree, one had no choice — or, on the other hand, to critique such New Statism. And even if one is forced to accept, surely one can critique within that acceptance. Bite the hand that feeds one. Not just roll over and have one’s tummy tickled. Professor During seems gleefully and opportunistically to embrace the post-Dawkins world rather than critiquing it. He does not conceal this. Far from it: ‘Globalisation also means that (high-added value) cultural production is increasingly important to advanced economies so that an increased proportion of jobs are found in the cultural sector. Cultural Studies prepares students for these jobs. It also prepares them to become good consumers[emphasis added] of the products of increasingly sophisticated cultural industries.’ Spoken like a commissar! There’s the New Statism for you, there’s the Cultural Studies New Jerusalem. In the shopping mall of your choice.

Professor During even had the gall, or the lack of sense of history, even literary history, to assert Cultural Studies ‘becomes the first academic discipline to be defined by consciously political orientations’. But what of academic English? What of the great tradition that stretches form Matthew Arnold through T S Eliot through E R and Q K and Raymond Williams, a tradition not merely of ‘Culture’ of the ‘function of criticism’ of ‘the value of “English”‘, but a political, and a consciously political, tradition. Those who are ignorant of (literary, cultural) History are doomed …

Don Anderson is a senior lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Sydney and the author of a collection of cultural essays, Sex and Text.

This piece has been extracted with permission from a much longer essay in 24 Hours, May 1995.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au