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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Essay: Writers, Intellectuals, Professors

One of the first things by Roland Barthes that I read was, "Ecrivains, Intellectuels, Professeurs" which appeared in Tel Quel (Issue 47, 1971) just as I turned up to enroll as Barthes' student at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. It came to mind as I was reading Adam Phillips's On Balance (2010) - a book I can't review here because I didn't read it Cover to Cover: I skipped some of the book reviews.

Barthes (at least as I recall) carves up a space which can be occupied by different kinds of individuals (the ones he names in the title) and different kinds of writing (which, as it were, go with the job). Over time, the organisation of the space changes: roles and styles get (partially) interchanged; orders of dominance shift.

Nowadays, the professors and the academic style very much have the upper hand. The fundamental reason is economic.

Imagine. A Prof earns let's say 36 000 a year (dollars, euros, pounds- it doesn't matter) for a working commitment of 240 days (probably a bit less but it makes the arithmetic simple). So it's around 150 a day, before tax. Modest, but it pays the bills. In the United Kingdom, it would not be unusual for a third of those 240 days to be charged as "research". For a Prof in the arts and humanities, this is when he or she can read and write and get paid for it. Eighty days (plus whatever voluntary overtime you put in). And no one says (yet) into how many published words that must convert, though if no words are published then eventually the Prof will lose those 80 days back to teaching and "admin".

In contrast, the writer and the intellectual have to live off Royalties - which depend on number of books sold - and Fees - which usually depend on number of words commissioned. At the beginning of a career when you have no back list of publications generating continuing income, there is absolutely no way to make a living out of being a "writer" or "intellectual". Even many years later, only a few do. That is why you find novelists taking jobs teaching Creative Writing and critics taking jobs as Visiting Professors.

Adam Phillips is a figure to be honoured. Starting out as a working child psychotherapist (in the National Health Service), he has gone on to carve out a space for himself as a writer and (public) intellectual. He showed in his Fontana Modern Master Winnicott that he could do the kind of job only a very good academic could do; he has also done the kind of editorial work academics reckon is their job. But he has now worked for a couple of decades, without footnotes, exploring how we live our lives (or have them lived for us) in a way which is both creative and open-ended but also disciplined by an enduring commitment to a psychoanalytic paradigm - a paradigm which universities, at least in the UK, have never really endowed with salaries.

The pressure must sometimes feel immense.

Academics feel (peer - ) pressured to publish and end up finding outlets in unreadable (and unread) journals for work which is - what? - ninety percent of the time banal or simply repetitive of what they published in another journal last year. Unless they belong to a fraternity or sorority whose members swear to cite each other, the only person who will ever cite these publications is the author, in his or her CV.

Writers and Intellectuals look at their bank balances. The temptation to publish every last jot and tittle, if you can, must be considerable. The temptation to take on too much, ditto. Even in Adam Phillips there are times when I feel he multiplies his trade mark Questions because they provide the words on the page that he needs without consuming the hours it would take to craft considered Answers.

Roland Barthes had more elevated concerns in his essay than my Benjamin Franklin preoccupations, but he wrote as someone who himself made the transition from intellectual (writing newspaper columns even) to (rather uncomfortable) Prof.

In the year I studied with him, he was assigned a real theatre for his popular lectures. He sat modestly enough on the stage behind a small table, with a sign from the current production ("Le Petit Cirque" ) hanging in the background. But he abandoned the theatre for a seminar room the week after someone stood up in the Balcony and denounced his reactionary adherence to theories of Binary Opposition. Someone there was making a Category Mistake.

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