I attended an event today on the future of the British university. In many respects the prospect of the academy looks gloomy: cuts in public spending leading to educational cuts, limiting university places, increase of student tuition fees, more auditing of research ‘excellence’ and the fear that all this will lead to redundancies. Beyond these symptoms our consciences are held hostage to the idea that being an intellectual is reduced to having and keeping an academic job.
So much so that for young PhD students ‘research training’ comes to dominate how they encounter the craft of scholarship. Max Weber’s suggestion that ‘science is a vocation’, a disposition and a way of holding to the world, is translated into the language of ‘professional development’ and the acquisition of a career. As Edward Said commented in his 1993 Reith Lectures: ‘The particular threat to the intellectual today, whether in the West or in the non-Western world, is not the academy, nor the suburbs, nor the appalling commercialism of journalism and publishing houses, but rather an attitude that I will call professionalism.’
The world of ideas is reduced to an academic game to be played with stealth. The life of the mind becomes fixated with fostering one’s career: jobs, promotions, measuring up to performance indicators, publishing in the most prestigious places, aspiring to a ‘world class’ profile. For Said this results in:
thinking of your work as an intellectual as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five with one eye on the clock, and the other cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behaviour – not rocking the boat, not straying outside accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable . . .
Appropriate forms of professional behaviour take on a style of self-presentation from appointments panels to the plenary colloquium but also produce habitual judgements concerning not only what is valuable but also what is valid.
Auditable forms of value (publications, grants, etc.) provide the medium through which we come to see our own worth and that of others. I think it is difficult to remain vigilantly impervious to the occupational modes of evaluation captured in phrases such as ‘does this person have enough publications to be entered in the next exercise when research will be evaluated?’
In Said’s argument there are three dimensions to the damage that professionalism does to scholarship and thinking. The first of these is the processes of specialization. For him the paradoxical result of the cultivation of research expertise is that it results in anti-intellectualism. Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz explains:
There is a serious danger that the specialist, forced to compete with his colleagues in acquiring more and more specialised knowledge, will become more and more ignorant about other branches of knowledge, until he is utterly incapable of forming any judgement on the role and importance of his own sphere within the context of human knowledge as a whole.
The specialist can go on mining within a very narrow, intellectually fenced-in area without ever being disturbed by the burning issues of the day. ‘Specialisation, I have always felt, is laziness’, writes Edward Said abruptly.
However, this does not mean that specialists don’t work extremely hard at their vocation. The work that they do, though, is often consumed with defending their area of professional expertise and this is the second damaging feature of professionalism. The studied maintenance of a professional reputation is a time-consuming business and involves the vigilant rebuttal and undermining of any interlopers on your intellectual territory.
Lastly, Said argues that professional intellectuals drift towards power through the enticements of honours or research grants with political strings attached. The result is timidity, a desire not to rock the boat or be too outspoken. Don’t do anything that might threaten the next offer to give a conference keynote or the invitation to join an editorial board.
By contrast Said espouses a model of the intellectual as the passionate dilettante or committed dabbler. ‘The intellectual today ought to be an amateur’, he concluded. Making intellectual life a job has resulted in conventionalism and an aversion to risk taking. Also, vocational anxiety has stifled the joys and surprises of intellectual exploration. The word ‘dilettante’ is derived from the Latin delectare, to ‘delight’.
There is something in Said’s attempt to reclaim amateurism for scholarship that offers a corrective to dull academic instrumentality. In today’s university many would say that these are luxuries that can only be afforded by a very select few. The appeal to intellectual dilettantism might well turn out to be, as Max Farrar commented in a different context, the ‘prerogative of the very successful and the retired’. Equally, amateurism might also be a licence just to do the difficult work of thinking badly or poor intellectual journalism.
However, some of the most lucid writers and witnesses of the twentieth century fit the model being suggested here. Primo Levi, for example, was both a professional chemist and a writer. His profession made him useful to the overseers of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz during the year he spent in the chemical Kommando. His trade was key to his survival. On his return to Turin, the city where he lived all his life except for the year he spent in Auschwitz, he became a writer in part as a way of reckoning with the time he spent behind barbed wire. He was much more than merely a literary witness to the Nazi holocaust. He wrote novels, journalism and poetry on a wide variety of topics.
Other People’s Trades is a collection of Levi’s essays originally published in Turin’s newspaper La Stampa. The pieces range from literary reviews to social observation and philosophical fragments. Although he characterizes himself as ‘too much a chemist and a chemist for too long to consider myself a real man of letters’, Levi’s incursions into the trades of other people are adventures inspired by what he describes as a ‘durable fascination of unrequited loves’. He comes to art and literature with the patience and technical precision of a scientist but also writes of a science with the flair of a novelist.
Jane Jacobs, author of the classic study The Death and Life Great American Cities, is another example of a compelling writer who was a brilliant amateur. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jacobs moved to New York when she was 19. Having completed a stenographer course she found work as a secretary but the work was intermittent and she found herself routinely pounding the New York sidewalks in search of work. Biographer Alice Sparberg Alexiou commented that Jacobs ‘found her subjects just by walking about, letting her mind settle wherever it wanted. She would scribble down notes on whatever scraps of paper she had in her purse. Then she would go home and write.’
Jacobs wrote about and incredible range of topics from the variations in the size of New York manhole covers to the economics of the city’s fur business. The articles she wrote appeared in a wide variety of magazines from Cue to Vogue and led eventually to an associate editor position at a publication called Architectural Forum. By this time Jacobs was now a mother raising her children in Greenwich Village, while riding her bicycle to work every day.
Her take on urban change and city life was fashioned not through city plans or academic seminars but from paying close attention to the ebb and flow of neighbourhood life. This sensibility was expressed in an article entitled ‘Downtown is for People’ that appeared in Fortune magazine in 1958. The article was critical of the hubris of architects and the tearing down of old neighbourhoods and the building of huge housing projects. She wrote: ‘You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects are based are visibly wrong.’
Her friends and supporters described her as a ‘wonderfully likeable, contentious and opinionated woman’, but as Sparberg Alexiou points outs the architectural establishment and conservative academic urbanists viewed her as an upstart. Publisher of Fortune C.D. Jackson is purported to have asked having read Jacobs’s article: ‘Who is this crazy dame?’ Other commentators dismissed her as a ‘housewife’ and even one ‘without a college degree’.
Regardless, she would go on to complete her classic study of city life in 1961. Part of the reason why The Death and Life of American Cities is such an enduring book is because it tells the city’s story from the vantage point of the citizen, a Greenwich Village mother who witnesses the street corner ballet first hand. It is this view of the city from the sidewalk or from Jacobs’s bicycle that is so fresh – even now over fifty years later – and communicated the social life of cities with vivid clarity.
My last example, poet William Carlos Williams, didn’t simply have another trade – he was a doctor in Paterson, New Jersey during the early part of the twentieth century – and through his practice he was drawn into a profound engagement with the lives of others. For Williams the two professions, symbolized in the stethoscope and the typewriter, enhanced each other.
These relationships could be fraught in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s and some of his working-class patients were deeply suspicious of him. He was torn about using the lives of the people he attended to as a doctor as a resource for his writing. Yet he was animated by the desire to capture poetically and with sensitivity the texture of working people’s lives.
The physician, after a lifetime of careful listening, bore witness to:
the inarticulate patient [who] struggles to lay himself bare for you, or with nothing more than a boil on his back is so caught off balance that he reveals some secret twist of the whole community . . . It is just a glimpse, an intimation of all that which the daily print misses out or deliberately hides, but the excitement is intense and the rush to write is on again.
The social landscape in which Levi, Jacobs and Williams practised their respective trades is a strong feature of their writing. Their work contains – both implicitly and explicitly – the writers’ deep attachment to place. Part of the lesson contained in their books is the importance of maintaining a hinterland beyond the academy. Sociologist Harvey Molotch captured this in his phrase ‘going out’ which is an appeal to do, live and think adventurously, that is, to become entangled in the life of the city, or a political activity or a cultural field like music or art.
It is not only a choice between being a professional supplicant or cultivating an amateurish conscience but also a matter of having a hinterland in which the imagination can be nourished. In the case of these writers it was their ‘day jobs’ or their experience living the life they sought to understand that fed their craft as writers. It might be simply a matter of getting out more and following our intellectual passions without the inhibiting sense that we are thinking ourselves out of a job.