DECLINE OF THE AURA OF THE SCHOLAR

The scholar is a figure of someone who is passionate about a particular subject, and who may even able to make their living out of their passion if they manage to get a university job that permits research. The academic is the banalised form of the scholar, and would give up their job if they could get more money elsewhere. So what do we call someone who wishes to lead the life of a scholar, having the passion, but does not have that sort of  university position and so who must sacrifice leisure time and sharing with friends and family to live a fraction of that life? A “would-be” scholar? No, because they are in fact being scholars in their private time. Nietzsche called them “private thinkers”. Must they be resigned to being seen, even by themselves, as “second best”? In moments of sadness or doubt it can seem so. Yet I think that it would be overly pessimistic to think that they are wholly deprived of the means to intellectual satisfaction.

True, it is a difficult situation to have to work normally, and then to use our leisure time to work on what we love. For example, I am an English teacher in a technical school, which involves a lot of work. I am married and have two children. This situation has its own satisfactions, but I also need intellectual satisfaction since my intial formation was in philosophy. As I am still passionate about philosophy I use nearly all my leisure time reading and writing on philosophical subjects, which means sacrificing other activities, and indulging in chronic overworking as I do not rest, and spend consequently less time socialising or sharing with my family. Yet I do not feel totally frustrated intellectually. Especially over the last four years, since I started my blog, I feel great intellectual inspiration, freedom, and satisfaction.

One could suggest that being a scholar and being an academic are one and the same thing. This does not correspond to my experience, which suggests that the passionate ones are few and far between. Along with Nietzsche, I can cite Feyerabend and Deleuze who talk about thought-bureaucrats, or Kierkegaard who talks about the objective thinker without passion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many bureaucrats are interested in their job, and do it well. However, when I began university I thought that at last I would be joining a community of scholars, and I was very disappointed when I saw that it was not so. When I had an opportunity to come to Paris and attend Deleuze’s seminars, and study first-hand a passionate scholar at work, I lept at the chance.

It would be a mistake to suppose that academics are just scholars who got lucky, or whose natural talent won them such recognition naturally. Once again my sociological experience disconfirms this idea. I was very slow to see just how people who succeeded in getting academic jobs and later tenure were, from the very beginning as undergraduates and later as they progressed along the academic ladder, “playing the game”, doing everything they could to succeed, eliminating all passionate attachment to personal ideas and taking up the interests, the ideas and the opinions that would get them ahead. I have seen some people do this very deliberately and consciously, and many others who were just instinctively adapting themselves. It’s a scarcity situation with not enough jobs to go round, the competition is intense, and it is not always degree of passion for the subject that decides on success.

As to the loss of the “aura” of the scholar, the increasing hegemony of extrinsic norms and administrative criteria of evaluation may be making the attribution of public money to finance that sort of passionate involvement in a subject not just a rarity, but a thing of the past.

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5 Responses to DECLINE OF THE AURA OF THE SCHOLAR

  1. Adam Robbert says:

    I’m enjoying this series of posts / investigations, Terence. Two things came to mind for me as an individual who also works “outside” of traditional academic venues.

    (1) While the university is certainly an important site of knowledge production, it’s not the only piece in the knowledge-making puzzle. For example, I work freelance in editing and publishing. It’s not an academic post per se, but it does provide its own unique range of opportunities. In the past few months, I’ve read forthcoming research in psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, law, education, and more. I find that this keeps me “in the loop” in terms of work that engages my intellectual / scholarly faculties, and it also keeps me from specializing too hard in one field; it keeps my pluralism alive and kicking and engaged in the research world without depending on what happens in the big universities (or the little ones, for that matter).

    (2) Provided one can make ends meet, there may actually be some benefits to working outside the traditional structure. For instance, I find that I am much more able to follow my problems and queries wherever they lead, and that I can more or less make the decisions that best fit my research, rather than having to follow some sort of departmental party line. I gather that the bureaucracy of the university can stifle this kind of pursuit, and that many teachers are overworked / underpaid and may never really have the time to pursue their own research. The blog then allows me to connect with other people—and hopefully to find some good arguments!—in a way that undercuts the usual problems with being a so-called “autodidact” or “para-academic.” I think we’re a long way from figuring out how online research and dialogue really work—quite a substantial amount of it is unsuccessful, I think—but the future seems promising.

    Anyway, those are just some thoughts that came to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, Deleuze said it about drugs, madness, meditation, and academic philosophy: there are always other ways to get the same effects by other means, as long as we are not fixated on the form. There are as you say other ways of keeping up to date on research relevant to our own concerns. Secondly one particular mediation, such as a bureaucracy, may just as much obstruct as facilitate, it is not only good or only bad but a pharmakon, as Stiegler would say. If one mediation is unattainable or does not work for us, others exist. Online research and dialogue is in its infancy, it has not really been tried out as an autonomous model, but has tended towards perpetuating in a new medium some of the limiting habits that it has in principle made dispensable. Such nostalgic mimesis is not the formula for success in most cases, but all too often a ratification of success obtained elsewhere. One has only to see established academics nonplussed and uncomprehending about how to relate to someone who is neither a student nor a colleague, but who as you say is certainly not an “autodidact”.

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  3. Naxos says:

    In my experience I cannot but see that scholars and academics are of the same type: while they are not the same as you say, they ‘belong’ to the same type. They can have different degrees of passion, yes, but they are enlisted in the same category of interest, as their passion is anyway stimulated but also subjected by the institutional frame, a frame that gives form to their way to tackle the experience of knowledge and to live through this experience. And it is precisely because of this, that the scholar would tend to become an academic, as he is practically disposed to become one. If we aim to talk about passion, then the difference should not be regarded to the question of who is or who is not taking a position in the field, fueling a trajectory and responding to its specific interest and competence. The scholar might not have a position in the filed yet, unlike the academic, who already has one. But they share the same habitus: they were formed by the structures of the field and thus, would work for to form and perpetuate the principles of those structures, meaning just a very little space for a convenient adaptative change, which is never radical. a passion is not only something that should fulfill our intimate pleasures and aims: a passion is always transformative. The passion of a scholar tends to be exhausted by the institution, leading no change. While the scholar becomes an academic, the academic tends to become a bureaucrat or, what is worst: a mercenary: a passion for the field, a passion for the competence, a passion for the owned position and its escalating trajectory: this is only a way to exhaust our passion. For me, whoever is passionate about knowledge out of this interest, who is able to see that he can be an autodidact as to enrich his vision of the world, no matter if its passion is not specifically through philosophy but even through other non institutional means of expression (literature, music art in general) can be already be considered a philosopher. This assures a passion that does not get exhausted and which is oriented to change the world by affection. There are philosophers and dilettantes, and most of the time they are more fond in what they know precisely because their way to appropriate such knowledge is intimate, free, unframed, unbounded. No matter if they are active or passive, passions are all the time related to an immanent outside as they means a degree of power, a potentiality, so they always go along with the intensities of life: this is why it is very important to overcome with all the subjections that exhaust them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • terenceblake says:

      I was reacting to the piece by Ed Hacket, trying to console him for some sadness and frustration he felt, so I used his words. “Scholar” is not a word I usually use, I prefer “private thinker” (Deleuze, Nietzsche) or “dilettante” (Feyerabend). It turned out that Ed had no desire for such consolation, as he still gives credence to the myth of the scholar and to the model of the academic. Feyerabend in his “last interview” says that as an academic he considered that he always had “total freedom”. He regrets that today young people are stopped from having jobs, or are given time-consuming ungratifying jobs, by people who have no particular raison d’être other than power over others and money, and resentment against life. If we want freedom we can take it up where we stand. The other problem that Feyerabend commented was publication and isolation. Increasingly we are left to be free to think whatever we like (if that’s what we want) but only confidentially. This was before the internet, but the problem persists. The academic hiatus of cronyism and subjection is just transposed over into the new medium, which is colonised by the same old personality types and pressure groups. But here too, this does not have to be the case, and other voices can rise up and make themselves heard, thinking and talking in new forms and in new ways.

      Liked by 1 person

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