For academics retirement is fast becoming a thing of the past. The normal pension age is 65 under the UK’s University Superannuation Scheme (USS). However, from 2011 ‘flexible’ forms of retirement have been introduced making it possible for academics to work on almost indefinitely. It conjures an image of piles of unmarked exam scripts on top of a lapsed faculty member’s coffin, accompanied by an irritated email enquiry as to ‘why the grades for this course haven’t been returned before the deadline!’ Flexible retirement will mean our in-boxes follow us into the grave.
Since retiring from the University of Leeds in 1990 Zygmunt Bauman has entered into the most prolific period of his life. Publishing one acclaimed book after another, he is one of the most important thinkers of our time and has attracted non-academic readers too. In 2012 Bauman wrote ‘my curiosity refuses to retire’. A paradox in academic life is that we often have to get away from our jobs to actually do our work. So, retirement can mean being relieved of professional duties and the freedom to think and reflect. Zygmunt Bauman has published thirty books in his ‘retirement’. His example was very much on my mind in preparing to say a few words in the summer of 2011 at a gathering to mark the retirement of Professor Vic Seidler from teaching at Goldsmiths.
Vic was offered a job at Goldsmiths in 1971. He had just returned from Boston when he received a call from Sue Steadman-Jones offering him a part-time job teaching social philosophy. There was only one condition: he had to start the very next day. I think this title – social philosopher – is a pretty apt way to characterize Vic’s thought. Social involvement equally combined with philosophical engagement.
A part-time position was attractive because it enabled Vic to combine academic work and teaching with his varied political involvements in workers’ movements, student politics and anti-sexism. I think that this combination is something that really characterizes Vic’s way of being an intellectual. It wasn’t until 1976 that he took up a full-time position at the College because, as he told me recently, ‘you wouldn’t be taken seriously if you didn’t have a full-time job’.
This meant that from the very beginning of his academic career Vic did not see himself as confined to British sociology; rather, his sociological imagination was always more international and philosophically adventurous. Also, I think it meant that he saw teaching as his key commitment, his first principle.
I first met Vic in 1982. He used to teach a second year course on social theory. It took place in an old tiered lecture theatre. I remember the seating was almost like being confronted with wall of benches staggered at about 60 degrees. Anyhow, my friend Sim Colton and I, neither of us sociology students, would arrive early and smuggle ourselves in at the back of the lecture theatre hoping not to be noticed.
In those days it was a twelve-week course: the first half focused on Karl Marx’s writings; and the second was dedicated to Sigmund Freud’s thought. Vic would come in and make some announcements. Then he would start to talk using no notes. He would explain the intricacies of Marx’s theory of alienation or Freud’s conceptualization of the unconscious, one lucid sentence after another. All the while he would pace up and down in front of us, as if he was taking these ideas for a walk. Sim and I used to say to each other afterwards: ‘How does he do that!’ Watching him teach or give a paper now, I am still struck by that same sense of wonder.
Although neither Sim nor I were officially his students, we’d go for meetings and tutorials with him. Sim grew up in Manchester and his father worked in the printing industry. His mother died when he was very young. After the bereavement his father had to fight to keep Sim and his four brothers together: social workers wanted to put them in care claiming that their father wouldn’t be able to cope.
The boys developed a deep sense of solidarity and fierce suspicion of powerful institutions. His home was like an extension of the print shop floor – I won’t repeat the kind of industrial language that was exchanged over whose turn it was to do the washing or to make the tea.
Sim would go and see Vic to try and figure out how to understand his own life, or how to frame it – this is one of Vic’s favourite phrases – within the complex interplay between masculinity, generation and class. I saw Sim recently at his father’s funeral. His Dad had lived an extraordinary life and in retirement he had painted, written poetry and would offer a recital of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ at a drop of hat (drunk or sober).
Sim recalled those tutorials with Vic in the heyday of Thatcherism. He described going into his office in the front of 47 Lewisham Way. You would go in, books and papers would be everywhere, a Persian rug on the floor, picture of Freud on one wall and Marx on the other. Vic would be in a chair at the centre of all the piles of papers and books often wearing on his feet a pair of slippers.
Vic is interested in you but also in what you are interested in. This interest always conveyed such a sense of being valued. Simone Weil, one of Vic’s early influences, wrote: “‘You don’t interest me.’’ No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice.’ I think these words have guided Vic’s way of practising a sociological vocation.
The other thing that he taught us very early on is that there is no hope in changing the world or even understanding it better, without first trying to change ourselves. Sim actually appeared as a ‘case study’ in a book by Harry Christian – one of Vic’s associates – called The Making of Anti-Sexist Men.
Vic’s political commitments made him a writer. He writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate. He has published on an astonishing range of topics including social theory, emotions, masculinity, fatherhood, philosophy, sexual politics, anti-Semitism, the Shoah, terrorism, multiculturalism, faith, ecology, youth, Latin American culture, narrative and memory, history and mourning. He writes because he is trying to work something out.
It is an indication of the lasting relevance of his work that Routledge has republished six of his books within their ‘Routledge Revival’ series. For once they got something right. There is a shift in Vic’s writing from the universalism of his poster boys – Marx and Freud – and a dogmatic version of Left politics, to an engagement with difference. A characteristic of his recent work is openness and a measure of humility in what we can claim to know while at the same time a commitment to social critique.
Finally, being around him, at a conference or in an intellectual conversation, Vic always conveys a sense of intellectual excitement, a kind of enchantment in and with ideas. You can always rely on him to support an event and to ask a question. Sometimes we almost have to restrain his enthusiasm and excitement.
Aeschylus wrote that to ‘learn is to be young, however old’. For Vic, this has always been learning with students, through what they are interested in and what they bring with them into the seminar room. One thing for sure is that it has kept him young and maybe this is why he does not seem to have aged in the thirty years I have known him.
Vic is interested in new ideas but not in the performance of intelligence, or what he referred to recently as ‘the self-important talking to the self-important’. There are some aspects of the new academic environment that he’s less at home in. He never quite took to email, for example. There is a kind of gentle stubbornness in Vic.
On the other hand, it makes total sense to me that he is an avid user of SMS and text messaging – an authored person-to-person communication both intimate and social. That’s why Vic has his mobile phone always to hand.
Writers like Vic Seidler and Zygmunt Bauman have escaped the trappings of ‘flexible retirement’ in order to do their work more vigorously. It is perhaps ironic that giving up their professional responsibilities has made them more focused and committed to their craft. Of the many things I have learned from Vic, three in particular stand out: 1) convey to students a sense of profound interest in them and their interests; 2) write about things that matter to you; 3) retain a sense of enchantment and excitement in ideas. I have learned many other things from him but I think these three are the most precious.