The anti-realists of academe

”What did you bring to read?”: the usual question I put to my academic guests. For renowned Marxist critic Terry Eagleton’s week of classes at the University of Cape Town last month, there were three authors: Marcel Proust, Fredric Jameson and John le Carré.

”It’s funny, isn’t it?” notes Eagleton. ”You mention the name Proust and it’s so immediately offputting. Somehow it conjures up all that is the most snobbish and aesthetic (in the bad sense) in writing. Yet no one is quite so absorbing as Proust. I always bring a volume with me on trips. I don’t read him from cover to cover, but dip in and move around. For this trip, I’ve brought Guermantes Way. It’s the one full of wicked social satire.”

Anything by Fredric Jameson is a more obvious choice as Jameson is, in many ways, the United States counterpart to Britain’s Eagleton, sharing with him an undismayed commitment to the political project of Marxist literary and cultural criticism. The Modernist Papers show, he suggests, ”Jameson’s great strengths as a textual critic. No one can read quite so deeply and carefully as Fred; and no one can write quite so well either.” And finally — for the long flight back to Heathrow and then on to Ireland, where Eagleton now spends most of his time with his partner and two young children — the latest John le Carré thriller. ”After all,” he grins, ”Le Carré has turned quite leftist in recent years, hasn’t he?”

The infectious grin, coupled with the steadfast commitment to progressive politics and the deep devotion to literature, does much to explain the particular appeal of Eagleton, whose best-selling academic books have probably been read by more students the world over than those of any other single academic writer. Literary Theory: An Introduction has sold over a million copies and been translated into a dozen languages since its publication in 1983 and After Theory was published as a popular Penguin paperback in 2004. As one student at his UCT lectures commented, ”He made us feel a connection, even when we were a bit lost by the level at which he was talking. He was humorous as well as serious.”

Humorous as well as serious: perhaps the defining quality of Eagleton’s style. Thinking, for Eagleton, is obviously a pleasure, as well as a deadly serious matter — so that he places great emphasis on the role and reality of pleasure in all education. It’s precisely what’s being denied, he argued, in the current global restructuring of higher education on apparently pragmatic principles of profit above all, and in which the business model — as opposed to the pleasure principle — reigns supreme.

One thing about the new application of business models of financial accountability and profitability to universities is, he suggests, the ways in which its apparent neutrality works to conceal the real political motivations behind or within it. ”The ambition of our rulers is to make as though the values of the play of free-thinking never existed at universities in the first place. It’s to wipe them from memory, not just to contest them; it’s to bring about an amnesic situation in which the whole idea of critique never existed in the first place.”

And, as so often in cultural and political history, received ideas have their role to play in this process. Eagleton suggests that the current appeal to the image of the university as Ivory Tower by administrators — who now claim only to be trying to ground the university, and to make it more real and more relevant to society — is a profoundly mystifying one. ”It’s a very powerful, but specious rhetoric that these people use.” he argues. ”Of course there is something extremely privileged about doing what we do at universities. But the Ivory Tower image misses the point.

”The whole idea of the university,” he explains, ”was to have a space relatively free of real-life pressures so as to make it possible to engage in a kind of critique and dialogue impossible outside it. But what results from this disengaged process is very much an engagement with society. I suppose the ruling classes have learned the lesson from the Sixties that if you let a lot of young people hang out together for three years or so, doing nothing but reading books and talking in cafés, then they might actually come up with some critical ideas (depending, of course, on the general historical situation). One of the combinations most feared by the authorities is that between ordinary people and intellectuals or students.”

Eagleton had harsh words for the new breed of academic administrator. ”There’s something rather pathetic about academic administrators playing at being businessmen. They look wide-eyed at this great big model of accountability and profitability, whereas they know in reality that universities are not the same as business corporations. The question arises as to why this one model — the business model — should have become so natural that it can’t, apparently, be questioned, so that to question it is immediately branded either as naïve and regressive, or as impossibly utopian.”

”To my mind,” he argues, ”the really naïve people are those who pride themselves on being hard-nosed pragmatists. They are the anti-realists, for all of their so-called pragmatism … There’s something curiously hollow about the apeing of mechanisms of profitability from elsewhere, and trying to make them fit a situation where they can’t really work. It’s only the pseudo-administrators and would-be business people who insist on the adoption of a kind of autocratic and out-moded disciplinary model in universities that today’s more laid-back, open-necked-shirt entrepreneurs in the real business world would laugh at.

”Business,” he adds, ”learned about the benefits of hegemony — as opposed to coercion — long ago. It learned that you have to keep people happy, whereas the application of these outmoded ideas of disciplinary administration are promoting a great deal of unhappiness in universities around the world. Certainly in Britain, the new modes of organisation are proving demoralising and depressing, and discouraging young people from going into academia, and this is really now a serious problem.”

The general problem, he says, was well described by cultural theorist Jurgen Habermas. ”Habermas makes a strong distinction between what he calls the lifeworld — the human world of dialogue and communication — and the systems world — the inhuman world of administrative rationality. When you bring the two together, or better, try and superimpose the one on the other, then you are likely to produce truly pathological symptoms, and produce significant distortions in the lifeworld itself.”

One of these pathological symptoms was surely the pressures placed on Eagleton at Oxford University to himself become — an administrator. He explains: ”I left Oxford for Manchester so as to be able to go on doing what I do best — writing books and teaching — rather than be forced into doing what I’m worst at — sitting on committees and telling other people what to do.”

All in all, in late modernity more than ever before, the capitalist system continues to deepen its already contradictory demands on people. ”On the one hand,” argues Eagleton, in terms familiar to anyone who shops or watches tv, ”we are postmodern hedonists, expert consumers, living in a world where we are expected to just get used to things being ephemeral, provisional and mobile, and where flexibility is the great key word.” But on the other, he continues, ”one of the problems the system faces is that the system itself doesn’t really work like that.

”For it to work at all,” he points out, ”it has to appeal to really quite old-fashioned ideas of self-determination and self-responsibility. We need people to be responsible rather than infinitely flexible: we need people who can be responsible parents, jurors and, ultimately, active citizens. So it is that education has quite contradictory demands placed on it to produce both compliant consumers yet active autonomous and critical citizens.” In this near-schizophrenic situation, he concludes, ”one almost gets to the point of saying that reading a poem with sensitivity becomes a kind of political act just because it resists the encroachment of instrumental reason.

”If the humanities weren’t so harassed and demoralised,” he concludes, ”perhaps something like that insistence would be the best way forward.”

John Higgins is professor of English at the University of Cape Town

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John Higgins
John Higgins works from San Francisco USA. Media Studies, U. of San Francisco, Fulbright Scholar, Cyprus, Storytelling, Street Puppeteer, Prez: AFT/CFT Local 6590 @usfptfa John Higgins has over 283 followers on Twitter.

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