For a group whose name means “having no practical or useful significance,” academics can come in pretty handy. Everyone should have one or two of them around. The landed and merchant classes have always been willing to suffer them, as long as they’ve brought enough wit to their end of the dinner table to pay for their trifle and goose.
On the whole, they’re not a bad lot. The standard criticism of them, that they are elitist, out-of-touch, and live in Manhattan, works best inside a subsidized Detroitmobile, where the air is thick with naugahyde vapors, flatulence, and talk radio.
Not that they’re perfect. Leftist academics embedded and thriving in the academies of the empire are in almost exactly the position of native collaborationist elites in relation to mid-twentieth-century colonial powers, with the range of options outlined by Frantz Fanon, the Malcolm X of colonial theory, falling no longer only to blacks but to anyone willing to nest themselves inside the state apparatus. I mean, talk about sleeping with the enemy. They say that forensics experts are using bedbugs to finger their suspects these days. If so, imagine the tales the bugs of Manhattan could tell!
Still, academics are likeable. There’s a reason for that. My mother always used to tell me proudly that she had an M-R-S degree. It turns out that the letter hat-trick of the doctorate isn’t ‘P’ or ‘h’ or ‘D’, since anyone petitioning to enter the professoriate has to have the standard sheepskin anyway. The three essential letters are the three letters of recommendation from referees to get an academic posting.
Three people have to like you. That’s not ‘like’ as in ‘I like you but I want to see other people too’ like you said to Jennifer. It’s not necessarily rude, either, though let’s not discount the full monty, which certainly has its place in the annals of advancement protocol. The ‘like’ here signals, instead—and I hope you’ll remember this—a certain mutual willingness to suspend disbelief in the coherence of the system, rather in the manner that theatergoers are able to suggest (by the quality of their applause and by their angle of repose in their seats) that they are not likely to leap embarrassingly onto the stage and rescue Hamlet from the villains. The show must go on.
Universities in their current configuration are roughly as old as the plague. It’s always been love in the time of cholera at high table, though like traditional drama the actors in the pageantry have been boys until very recently, and the focus on gay rights in the last few decades should be considered as partly a spoof, since universities have always been gay, which in the old days suggested a fluid largesse enabled by the leisure afforded to one’s class by one’s class. Swine flu? Bring it.
Take my friend Larry, or Sir Laurence as we’re invited to call him, now that the French have had a go at him. He’s a bit of a fat fuck, is Larry, but he has his charm. The French are more discreet than me, and changed his name, but to me he’ll always be just Larry. I knew him back in the day when he was a plain old full professor and chair of the French department. Larry wrote so many academic articles no one could read them all. The French sent an emissary over to America to make him a knight for having a hundred gold étoiles plus bonus points. Took him into a chapel right there on our own campus and did something technical to him with a sword. Now, as a chevalier, Larry wears a little garter strap with some other stuff on it that he’s offered to show me. Well, I’m gay, sure, but not that gay (as you might have guessed, Larry is a very traditional academic).
Then Larry’s university made him a dean. The thing about academics is that thirty percent of them are in the priestly class of administrators getting extraordinary amounts of money to do nothing useful whatsoever. Well, I exaggerate, of course. They’re actually doing much less than nothing, because they get in everyone else’s way. But they tend to be likeable and the sort of people you’d have over for dinner. One Macbook Pro could replace all administrators at any university and still have enough processing power for World of Warcraft, including Burning Crusade and The Wrath of the Lich King expansion packs, but then who are you going to have over on Saturday night?
Sir Larry approached his responsibilities as dean with all the gravity that the prestigious post warranted. Every day he’d go into his office, close the door and unplug the phone, and let his secretary do the dean “work.” Larry’d write more articles. I wish I could say that Larry passed his idle time boffing slightly-over-age boys with the customary tutorials. Like I said, I wish I could say that. But this is a family magazine.
Academics. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, you know? We could hint at our ambivalence, for example, by noting academics’ bizarre insistence on fetishizing the “post-” of post-colonialism, as if the deprivations of empire had fallen into nostalgic disuse, like black-and-white film. As if forty thousand children a day weren’t dying from hunger within shooting distance of the seven hundred Battlestar Galactica-sized panoptical outposts of the empire in its American mode.
Just cue an academic with prompts like “subaltern” and “Spivak,” and the comforting haze of distance falls onto the discussion. There is a whole sepia-colored sub-industry called “Post-Colonialism,” and a special cadre willing to decry the horrors of colonialism in Algiers or India, places and events safely removed in time and distance. During the first eight years of the century a brief resurgence of critique of the empire (Hardt and Negri, etc.) was fashionable as long as the ills of the empire could be displaced on to a homunculus shipped direct to D.C. from Midland, Texas, with realistic head attachment at no extra charge, but what the left really meant by this was evident in hailing its next chief—the empire ought to be managed with a younger, sexier executive branch. The wars could remain or escalate, as long as they were good wars.
And don’t even get me started on who’s blind in the supposedly blind-submission policy of peer review, as if every article not explicitly tagged by one friend for another (almost all of them) isn’t implicitly tagged inside the article. This includes, most innocently, the use of a magisterial tone of writing to cue the adjudicator, phrases like “see my” in footnotes to call attention to previously published articles, and so on. When Milton was blind, by contrast, he published Paradise Lost. Now that’s blind.
Still, we oughtn’t to get too grouchy. It’s not always clear who’s boffing whom. Our friend here wrote a paper against Big Oil during the time he had funding as PetroCanada Young Innovator of the Year. That’s like a bumper sticker against war affixed to a, well, a bumper. As the Chinese couple said when they adopted a Caucasian baby, “two Wongs make a white,” which is exactly the kind of thing you won’t hear at the Marxist Cash Bar of the Modern Languages Association, let alone in po-co circles.
Sounds like the pandemic’s going to be upon us one of these years. Plagues and universities—just like old times. In a recent article in the Guardian, Mike Davis implies that those of us who like to get our food with the efficient use of land by eating organic turnips and whatnot are going to be dragged through the muck with the rest of you oinkers who like your pigs and chickens boiled alive in the bloodshit terror bath of the battery system. Sounds a bit medieval to me. Whatever happens, the clerics will be there, and their robes will be just as loose as the conditions demand. If Chaucer could see us now …
DAVID Ker THOMSON sleeps with an academic. He can be reached (for other purposes) at email@example.com