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Understanding the Rot in Academia

Botulism and Babel


Jean-Baptiste Botul does not exist, but having been cited and sanctified by a real philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, he has exposed the level of fictitiousness that exists beyond the imagination in the world of academia.

Before we unravel the several layers that constitute intellectual deceit, it is important to take a quick look at the controversy.

Frédéric Pages, a journalist, created Botul and his ‘work’ that often critiqued Immanuel Kant. This came in handy when Lévy wanted to emphasise his own position and used two pages from the writings of the fictitious philosopher. The intellectual community is having a good laugh. The question is: what are they laughing about? That Lévy did not have the good sense to run a search? Did he need a simulated theorist to rubbish Kant as “raving mad” and a “fake”? If that is so, then should one not examine why the journalist chose to do what he has done? His mock-up effort has been going on since 1999 – what prompted his fiction?

Lévy’s critics, even while damning him as a poseur, do not fail to refer to him as “France’s most dashing philosopher”, which is a rather superficial yardstick for philosophers. It is the celebrity craze that props up thinkers who can turn around and, as Lévy has done, say, “So I was caught, as were the critics who reviewed the book when it came out. The only thing left to say, with no hard feelings, is kudos to the artist!”

He is being magnanimous and including the whole intellectual community in his blunder. Rightly so, for the cult of the thinker is seriously flawed in contemporary times. “It’s the role of the philosopher to land blows,” according to Lévy.

What passes for original thought is essentially dependent on a bibliography not only of data but of ideas that have been sponged on. In the realm of philosophy, it becomes difficult to understand the fount from the fountain. The basis of judicious analysis is to understand available material and find one’s tangential niche, unless one is part of a fan club or a groupie.

Lévy’s fault is not quoting a fictional philosopher, but being cavalier about it.

The imagined aspect is redundant when ghost writing has become fairly commonplace.

A few years ago All Deliberate Speed, a book by Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, had six paragraphs lifted from What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said a book by Yale professor Jack Balkin, and he did not know he had plagiarised. Why? He had left the job to his assistants. The wrong assistant forgot to attribute it, or so he said, and it went straight to the publishers without him realising it.

He acknowledged his assistants but it was an Ogletree book. Often an academician claims to be helping out students; young people are indeed looking for such godfathers but what are they being taught? It is about being part of institutional cliques. It is an incestuous world where the hierarchy is based on who gets to the goal-post first. Not how. The number of guest lectures, the countries that send out invitations help in bolstering this pecking order. The academic junket junkies merely hold forth within the circumscribed area of what their sponsors lay out.

This case got some amount of exposure because big universities were involved. What must happen in smaller colleges? In the Lévy case, the most damning indictment was that he did not check on the internet. There is precious irony here. The fact that thorough philosophical discourse must include proper reading, absorbing, disputing of prevalent ways of thinking has now become something that is available within a few seconds.

If internet search engines are doing all the work, then why are huge sums of money spent on research that has absolutely no value except to glorify the teams, get their works published in journals and help create new celebrities? Most of the studies are only slightly smarter than spot polls. A small sample of people is used and treated no better than laboratory rats. Clearly, the motive is to prove a theory and there seems to be no room for individualism.

Besides, there is a disconnect with the outside world. The purpose of such knowledge is to disseminate information and not to be an exercise in vanity. While scientific breakthroughs in important areas are indeed valuable, what passes for science these days is quite often suspect or susceptible to vagaries of trends that are in turn chattels of commercial interests.

One of the reasons we still wish to respect the academic is that we believe there was no hurry to be feted. The image of the Saint of Scholarly Seeking toiling away among moth-eaten books in silent libraries smelling of old wood was a romantic notion. Today, not only do they wish to become known, but known better than the bloke sitting in the next cabin. Academics are often popular writers who were chartered accountants or some such thing and reinvented themselves, wrote fabulist tales about obscure aspects of their personal renaissance, were celebrated in the lists of bookstores along with cupcakes and immediately offered a Fellowship; if they are lucky in their veteran days, there might be a Chair named after them.

What makes them utterly charming is that after years of having done number-crunching they do not forget those roots and continue to nurse the market bubble. They have begun to use less heavy language, which would have been rather nice, except that they continue to look down on those who have such naturally accessible abilities.

Trivia is trumped up as appraisal. How many times must we have dreams of Madonna and Mona Lisa’s smile analysed or an ‘unusual’ assessment of Marilyn Monroe’s death?

The other worrying aspect is: Why would there be so many different versions and emphasis on how products affect us? From chocolates to wine to the scent from male armpits, we are inundated with conflicting information. Our health, sex lives and physical appeal become silent guinea pigs to this charade that is played out in campuses.

Again, these findings do not take cognisance of cultural, metabolic and even personal disparities. How provable are they outside of the study group? Are the findings adequate indicators to apply across societies?

What about thinkers and their ideas? Are thoughts verifiable? It would be fascinating to explore these areas but we’d end up with a fictional philosopher to make the real more potently real.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com