§93 Intellectuals: They worry, so you don’t have to

The two tribes that continue to divide the British middle-classes remain roughly the same as those comically explored in David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988). In a concentrated shift of the rich/poor gulf which defined the ‘two nations’ of Benjamin Disraeli’s Victorian Britain, today’s bourgeoisie is divided between those that adhere to an industrial ethic of small business ownership and wealth creation, and those typified by the so-called Hampstead dinner-party set of the culturally posh, New Class, intelligentsia.

This cultural divide has most-recently been played out (again, roughly) along the various fault-lines of the 2016 EU Referendum, with the ‘culturally posh’ launching accusations of stupidity and racism at one side, and being met with accusations of elitism and anti-democratic sentiment from the other. The tension runs deep; however, one key aspect of this divide is the anti-expert discourse of Leave campaigners being rooted in an suspicion about what it is that academics and intellectuals actually ‘do’. This concern is often compounded by the fact that it is the hard-earned wages of one side being taxed to help fund the institutions through which the opposing tribe forge their careers and livelihoods.

I hope it will therefore come as something of a relief to reveal that what these intellectual types are really up to – whether in front of their screens, books, classes, audiences, and dinner-party guests – is worrying. As Stefan Collini put it in his 2012 defence of the humanities:

What they, we, are doing much of time is worrying. The default condition of the scholar is one of intellectual dissatisfaction. No matter how exhilarating it may be to discover new evidence or come up with an illuminatingly apt characterization, one can never (and perhaps should never) entirely banish the sense that the current state of one’s work can only ever have the status of an interim report, always vulnerable to be challenged, corrected, or simply bypassed. The mind searches for a pattern, for a kind of order, but this is a restless, endless process. (Collini, 2012: 66)

While the reward for this worry is the occasional glean of truth or understanding, which may offer momentary respite (See Notes §26 and §23 respectively) from the pain of writing, scholarly work is ultimately infinite in its potential for worry, which is why the rhetoric that accompanies the performance culture of Higher Education is both unnecessary and serves to only intensify the default condition of those it is imposed upon. It is unfortunate, for intellectuals in today’s climate, that it takes being an intellectual to know this.

/Pete Watt

References: 

Collini, Stefan (2012) What are Universities For? London; New York: Penguin.

Lodge, David (2002) Nice Work New Ed. London: Penguin.

On ‘The New Class’ see:

Brooks, David (2000) Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There 1st ed. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Kellner, Hansfried and Heuberger, Frank W. (1994) Hidden Technocrats: The New Class and New Capitalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Kotkin, Joel (2016) The New Class Conflict. Telos Press Publishing.