If it was easy, everyone would do it: Nick Cohen on Academia

I’m in full agreement with Nick Cohen about this Judith Butler passage – it’s obscure and unengaging.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

He’s right that academics do sometimes seem compelled to talk in a kind of code, and I’m sure I’ve sometimes been guilty myself of picking a buzzword rather than a simpler alternative which would have done the job just as well.  But I think the phenomenon Cohen describes has been exaggerated – or at least seems to be on the wane.

Cohen also claims that academics (and he particularly mentions those in English departments) aren’t interested in engaging with the public – citing as evidence the fact that their publications aren’t immediately accessible.  But I’d suggest that academics use different ways of engaging with the public – articles are mostly written for academic colleagues and postgraduates, but we also communicate our findings to undergraduate students or to the general public through lectures, exhibitions, blogs and amazon reviews.

Although I think it’s admirable when academics manage to communicate their work in an accessible way to a wide audience, I don’t think we should all aim to do this all the time.   Some thinking perhaps has to be done at a high/impenetrable level at first, and then gradually starts to have an impact on the discipline as a whole – and beyond. (Compare fashion designers whose creations may seem eccentric and unwearable inititally, yet which eventually influence the clothes on the high street.)  Even though I don’t read much high theory I’m aware that my own work has been influenced by it, even if only at a few removes.

Also I’m wary about dismissing critics and theorists who fall outside my own comfort zone because I’m sure that some of my own favourites might seem like candidates for Pseuds’ Corner to other readers.   I’ve often recoiled from the work of a challenging critic only eventually to come round to the idea that s/he actually might be on to something.

Nick Cohen quotes Dominic Sandbrook asserting that academics sneer at historians who write books people actually want to read.  I suppose this is true of some academics, but with the new ‘impact’ agenda, researchers who manage to create ripples outside academia are much in demand.  Cohen also complains that universities alienate the ‘intellectually curious’.  But if people are really curious – shouldn’t they invest a little time and effort trying to get to grips with an article which might at first seem tricky?

Maybe Cohen would approve of an initiative such as Alain de Botton’s School of Life.  But (although I’m sure the courses are interesting) I’m not sure how far they would extend one’s appreciation of literature, as opposed to help one reflect on life.  There should be a middle point between being stretched to breaking point (à la Butler) and asking the same questions, doing the same things, with literature which we might just as well do on our own.