Orals Diary, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

“It’s always open season on gay kids.” So begins Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” published as an article in 1991 and then, three years later, collected in her book of essays Tendencies, which I read yesterday and today in the Upper Reading Room, compulsively toggling back to social media every few pages in order to take in the tragedy that happened early Sunday morning in Orlando. Of those of the over 50 victims who have been identified, over half were under 30. For those of us who teach college—the late and lamented EKS, me, maybe you—many of them were the age of our students. The youngest was 19. Sedgwick writes in the introduction to Tendencies that she had young people, her students, in mind when she was writing. At the time she was writing some of these essays, surely some of her students were dying—certainly, she writes in Tendencies of a very close friend who did—and she was one of many people who put their queer shoulders to the wheel, putting pressure on the US government and the public to do something about a cruel fate that so many young people needn’t have met with.

At the time she was writing the essays in Tendencies, Sedgwick was also living through and with breast cancer, and so the book is very much about death and mortality and suffering, but it is about slow deaths, enervating ones, a drawn-out work of mourning (she writes a eulogy for a dying friend while he is still alive). Not so the young people shot down in cold blood on Sunday morning, whose families (and their chosen families, who, as Claire Potter has pointed out, are still being denied visitation rights, as they were 25 years ago) in some cases are still waiting to learn their fates. But the metaphor of “open season” that Sedgwick invokes (she’s talking about the pathologization of effeminate men) is not inappropriate for our age in which queer people out dancing, or college students, or seven-year-olds, can be shot like so many sitting ducks in places that should have been safe by weapons that those who have shot them in war zones believe should never be allowed in civilian contexts.

I didn’t expect that setting out to chronicle my orals reading would have any relevance to the outside world. Instead, I thought it would keep me going despite the frustration of having to spend so long doing something that doesn’t seem that useful. Evidently, I can be a better historian if I set aside these seven months to absorb lots of information, but in the moment it’s easy to look round at all the other people doing good and become angry at yourself for spending hours in a 400-year-old library reading yet another attempt to explain why X canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature is sexually transgressive. I was taught Sedgwick in college, in graduate school, have read her on my own, and have admired her work and, through the testimony of others, who she was as a person for many years—and yet, truth be told, going through her catalogue for orals can make it seem a little formulaic. Some other literary critic produced a reading of a canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature—or perhaps another cultural artifact—that was pathologizing, or too crudely-drawn and obvious, and Sedgwick sets out to put them right, with all the tricks available to a talented critic showing the text to have meanings both more and less transgressive, more and less complex, than the first reader could have seen. Several of the essays in Tendencies are like this: the one about Diderot, the one about Wilde, the one about Cather, the one about Austen, even the one about John Waters’ films. They do all relate elegantly back to her central, vital theme: an extension of her argument in Epistemology, which explored the connections and contradictions between homosexuality as a minority identity and as a more public and diffuse signifier; and between homosexuality as a transgression of gender norms and as an institution of gender separatism, but also moving further beyond “gay and lesbian” into this new world of the word “queer.” And so the characters in texts don’t just turn out to be gender-transgressive, or sexually unstable, in Sedgwick’s readings: they disrupt what “family” means (as in The Importance of Being Earnest, where uncles and aunts matter more than mothers and fathers); they refuse to be categorized into the homo/hetero binary (as in Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, for whom Sedgwick makes a case that I do not entirely follow but am happy to respect as having a sexual identity as an “onanist”). The historian, who is perfectly content with the finding that the Jane Austen heroines of this world did not understand sexuality, gender, and love the way we do today and does not seek to upset any further apple carts, sometimes gets a little lost around here. But Sedgwick has more to say when she lays the literature aside, as she does with many of the essays in Tendencies, and puts her critical acumen to work in other fields. She writes critically about her own identity, with wonderfully moving things to say about her identity as a fat woman, her identification with gay men, the love-relationships of her life. Adding the chapters together, it’s possible to see how the literary reading might have helped her to read the text of her own life.

I can’t imagine this was easy. Because it’s a special, emotional, tragic occasion, I’ll tell you why. I had a friend in college who was sometimes very reserved, but put that reservation to good use watching and understanding the lives of the people around her. Once at night when some of us were drinking tea in her room, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Emily, why do you want so much to be a gay man?” I stumbled over an answer, not sure how to provide one while also denying the presence of the question. I recall others in the room remarking that it was a weird, and maybe a rude, thing to say. But it has weighed on me for years, because obviously it spoke something of the truth. As I have gotten to know Sedgwick through her writing, it is a great relief to know that—like countless queer people who found community through literature where they couldn’t among the living—I am not the only woman who has questioned her commitments to her feminist politics because of her deep emotional investment in communities of men, nor the only one who has sought to live out queerness despite what would seem very much to be unavoidable cross-gender erotic and affective commitments. I am grateful to Sedgwick for having such an unconventional critical style, with so much of herself in it, because if it weren’t for her writing I might not have known that it is okay and honest and ethical to have the inclinations that I do, couldn’t have seen someone else state them so matter-of-factly, and then work to create a larger space in which any kind of affective position that doesn’t fit into the categories available to us might be articulated.

What is the point of reading books in a 400-year-old library while the world burns around us? Some, after all, believe that those of us who find ourselves reading books at times like this are unredeemable, and advocate the violent destruction of the institutions in which it is possible for us to read them. They can rest in the comfort of their unbesmirched leftist politics, pure as the driven snow, while it is left for those of us who still read in buildings named after slaveholders to wrestle with our consciences. Wrestle we must, I think: it is dangerous to assume we are right that we are not doing harm to our students by making them confront new ideas they might find troubling; dangerous for us to assume that the world will be all right without us, or with only the odd modest donation to a cause or vote for a Democratic candidate; dangerous if we pass up the opportunity to bend the talents with which advantages and good fortune have bestowed us to some more urgent, and more life-saving, purpose. Yes, teachers do good, but that rings hollow on days when we have to remember that there are not a few teachers in recent years who have done the most good not by words and knowledge but simply by shielding their students from an unstable man wielding an assault rifle.

I think that we can take some comfort from the fact that all through the AIDS crisis, through which tens of thousands of queer and other vulnerable people in my country perished in part due to the government’s slowness to come to the assistance of some of the most marginalized and persecuted members of society, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick kept writing. She kept writing through her own illness, celebrating even when she herself was very ill the lives of her ill gay male friends. And she wasn’t just writing work with an obviously political or emotional purpose: Tendencies allows us to see that even MLA papers with provocative titles about the inner workings of classic novels, or about the minutiae of the methodology of the field of queer studies that she helped to found, add up to a larger picture of a corpus (a body, a body of work) devoted to changing the way people think.

A somewhat fainter, but really quite present, political backdrop to Sedgwick’s writing in this period is the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LD Burnett has noted, in this respect as well we are living through a remarkable echo of 25 years ago (weirdly, I was born a little more than 25 years ago), as older and more conservative college teachers and members of the public greet with mystery and hostility the wishes of the young to pursue a course of study whose rationale they can comprehend. In the early pages of Tendencies, Sedgwick has the best possible reaction to such views:

In the very first of the big “political correctness” scare pieces in the mainstream press, Newsweek pontificated that under the reign of multiculturalism in colleges, “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals…. He or she would be expected to… study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” Alongside? Read any Sonnets lately? You dip into the Phaedrus often? (Tendencies, 20)

What we do with canonical texts, we weirdos who work with them to ends other than to appreciate them (or at least, not only to appreciate them), is to show our students how to look at them from perspective after perspective until the student finds just the lens that will give her strength. For one student the Phaedrus is the epitome of classical Greek prose; for another, it is a key to the philosophy of writing and poetics; for another, it proves that another civilization long ago gave public sanction to his desires; for another, it is evidence of a rigidly hierarchical, sexist and class-bound society which modern democracies should have more sense than to revere. Or, I think Sedgwick helps us to understand, all these things can be true at once. And for that reason, turning one’s mind away from Twitter and towards such study is a moral path, perhaps even (not to get too grandiose, but) a salvific one, one that can help us know what to do when we are confronted with pain.

Don’t be stupid or self-absorbed. If you are American, contact your elected representatives and urge them to support universal background checks and an assault rifle ban. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me and for all the other teachers who lose sleep at night wondering if it will be our classrooms next. Do it for the queer Americans who have spent the twentieth and twenty-first centuries dealing with enough shit. And then take up your Plato or your Auden, kneel in prayer or go out dancing, and teach your children (for they’re your children even if you only have them fifty minutes a week in a discussion section) well.

Orals Diary, 1

Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.

I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.

I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.

Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.

More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?

Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.

Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.

A sermon and a pep talk for the morning of Wednesday of 13th week

With tomorrow’s lesson on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my head, Will Pooley’s evocative blog post as my text, and two more weeks of this crazy semester to go.

There is far to much anxiety and negativity among the apprentices in my trade, and it has an extraordinary capacity to feed off itself and grow.

People who know me well know that I am so anxious, that I am too quick to let my academic work define my self-worth, that I can so easily come up with excuses to hate myself for not working hard enough. I have been lying awake at night the last few weeks worrying because in mid-May I know I am going to hand in a term paper—my last term paper—that will fall short of the highest intellectual standard of which I am capable. But the reason I know I am going to do that is because the term paper actually isn’t important and I actually don’t care.

Instead it is important that the sun is shining and the weather is warmer; that I have wonderful students whom I am teaching an interesting book this week; that I have a roof over my head and a salary that allows me to live comfortably, to eat well, to give to charity, to travel; that I am going to the UK in just six weeks; that my house will be filled with old friends this weekend; that, no matter what happens on the job market in four or five years, I have so many structural advantages that I will have no difficulty landing on my feet in some sort of middle-class, professional employment that uses my skills.

There are things that one can do to make oneself a stronger candidate for an academic job: other competitions (for grants, for publications) that one can practice winning, hours that one can put in on one’s intellectual work as well as the other aspects of being a professional university teacher. There are also structural inequalities that make some people more likely to get academic jobs than others. I am sure I will carry to my grave the shame and sadness that by virtue of being born into an academic family (though not, it must be said, a particularly wealthy or elite one) and by virtue of the extraordinary post-secondary educational opportunities I have had, I have a greater chance at success than some. But I think there are ways to work constructively around that unavoidable problem: to do one’s duty, to be a responsible and hardworking holder of that place that one didn’t deserve, and to make at least modest efforts towards widening access for those who will come after.

I also think—and I know that I have said this to many of you—that there are countless ways in which all of us who are engaged in pursuing a fully-funded PhD at a top program are extraordinarily, jaw-droppingly lucky. I kind of cannot believe how extraordinary it is that I live in New York, that I make a decent living, that I get to teach bright, fun students, that I have access to such good library and information technology resources, that I live a life where going to Europe every summer is normal. I also, sometimes, get to think and to write, and despite how hard it is to be clever enough, I think I want to keep thinking and writing for a long time to come. I think I will be doing this even if I am not paid to do it, because I have been doing it all my life thus far, and in any case if I am fortunate enough to obtain an academic job what I will be paid to do is to instruct the young, anyway.

Will Pooley’s advice is right: we have to stop behaving as if our advisors are monstrous parental figures of one’s worst psychoanalytic nightmare, sitting in judgment on us. We have to have the confidence to live into being the scholars and teachers that we want to be, even if our efforts don’t have immediate external reward. We have to do the work that we are willing and able to do, and not the work that we are not. And we have to accept that all this may not be enough, or the right sort of thing, to get us the Oxbridge JRF or its moral equivalent—but if not, we have accrued a breathtaking quantity of advantages that others in the US or in our home countries do not have. We will be. just. fine.

What we need to do is to ensure we are advocating for our colleagues around the world who are not making a middle-class salary, to dispense the one good piece of advice—that in this day and age it is not worthwhile to do a PhD unless you are fully funded—to give other such pep talks where they are needed, to ourselves as much as others; and also to remember that the poor are always with us—that there are many in this country and around the world who do need our material and spiritual help, that we need to think about how we as humanities academics can find our ways of being a voice for the voiceless, whether as activists or, for those who do not feel called that way, as teachers of the western humanities tradition or other traditions, or simply with our financial donations or volunteering time.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

More on the trouble with benefactors

Posted on FB last week in response to this Guardian piece.

It’s entirely appropriate that the RMF activists have had a strong response to Oriel’s decision, but I think the views expressed in this piece demonstrate the need for greater understanding of how institutions work, particularly how they are funded.

I remember when I expressed frustration to the convenor of my master’s course that the History Faculty did a disservice to students by accepting so many onto my course, with a very wide range of abilities (some not well-prepared for postgraduate study at all) and many of whom were up against greater odds because they were accepted without funding. The convenor told me a bit about the numbers, and showed me a spreadsheet: without the revenue from those unfunded students’ fees, the Faculty literally couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the George Street building—much less funding other things students demanded as important components of a rigorous graduate program in history, like research travel grants.

There are involved historical reasons why the Faculties at Oxford are particularly poor, but this experience made me keenly aware of how many difficult (and ethically questionable) decisions faculty and administrators have to make to generate the revenue that allows their institutions to operate. For some elite institutions, even those far from Harvard and Princeton’s financial league, there are obvious places to reprioritize the budget, such as astronomical administrative salaries and, you know, “global” programs. For others, especially smaller ones, there is much more limited room for flexibility when student campaigns push for divestment from a particular industry or for the institution to take a particular decision that will alienate donors; institutions may reasonably conclude (as much as one might disagree with that decision) that prioritizing students’ needs is best done by taking money that allows them to continue offering student services, rather than taking a political stance that will lead to a loss of revenue. Still other institutions may make the troubling decision to admit students of less academic merit because their admittance might yield donations that will allow more students of great merit to receive financial aid that they need in order to study at that institution. It is possible to raise sound ethical objections to all these decisions, and I respect the opinions of those who in recent weeks have compellingly argued that the principle of the thing means that the money isn’t worth it. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a real choice here, and that it isn’t so easy to turn down money that you can put to good educational use (or even money that you can put to shitty neocorporate use). Those of us who have ever been made to write a letter of thanks to someone who endowed a scholarship for us, as I have every year since beginning higher education, should be aware of this. Another time I learned this lesson is from the many good people who made thoughtful, reasoned objections to my principled decision not to donate to Princeton. They haven’t convinced me to change my mind, but they’ve got a point too.

It’s hard to say how I would vote if I were on Oriel’s governing body (and how extraordinary that Oxbridge colleges still retain a form of collective decision-making entirely lost at most institutions of HE today—there are some forms of small-c conservatism not wholly evil). Probably, sort of like my vote in the Democratic primary, it would have to do in part with a constellation of strategic and emotional reasons not necessarily based in a rational, philosophically-minded weighing of the pure ethical factors at play. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have a rigorous logical method for weighing what is Right in situations like these. I think the history of institutions demonstrates that what is Right can often get really muddled by other pragmatic considerations; my study in this respect has led me to prefer forms of politics, philosophy, and ordinary living that take this into account. As much as I deeply respect the convictions of those who live otherwise, I just can’t get on that page, as much as I may be sorry for it.

Some things I’ve posted on Facebook recently about history of universities and statues of dead racists

Edited to remove identifying information about interlocutors. I know I haven’t posted here in months—we can take this as my ‘2015 Year in Review’ post since 2015 was also the year that I became more qualified to have something worthwhile to say about British imperial history—and the RMF campaign is nothing if not the working-out of British imperial history.

4 November, in response to a discussion about whether it is morally wrong for a white person to take up a Rhodes Scholarship:

My instinct is to disagree. Of the Rhodes countries I think South Africa might be a special case that I don’t really know enough about to comment, but if we look at Canada and the US, for instance (and yes, the US is an ex-colony, but a bit different to what we think of as the 19th-/20th-century “white settler” colonies) you would be hard-pressed to find enough Indigenous people who would be qualified for or interested in taking up the scholarship–sadly, that’s just a very small percentage of the population in both countries, and an even smaller percentage of those who pursue higher education. In the US, the Rhodies basically represent the demographics of elite US higher education from which they come. And we can and should be critical of this, but IMHO it’s part of a more regionally specific system that has more to say about race and class in America than it does about the initial intention of Rhodes’ will, which is no longer followed to any great extent by the selection committees. I suppose that one could view all of these factors as part of a transnational racist system, but I’m inclined to disaggregate them because they seem so historically specific. You’d have to go SO far back before the Rhodes period to make the case that British empire was at the source of all of them that, while that’s in some sense historically true, I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to think about it.

As an American and Canadian citizen and final-year student at Princeton (and blah blah blah all my advantages) I made a decision not to apply for the Rhodes in part because of my discomfort with the origins of the scholarship. I now believe that decision was mistaken. I received a different scholarship, the Marshall, which was instituted by the UK government in the ’50s (a Conservative government if I’m not mistaken) to express thanks to the US for the postwar Marshall aid and also to express an ideal of symbolic connection between these English-speaking nations. So that’s a racial ideal–Churchill was one of those to proclaim it as such in his Iron Curtain speech–even if the scholarship is part of the public UK HE budget and doesn’t have its origins in someone as manifestly evil as Cecil Rhodes. When I got to Ox for my master’s, I found Rhodies and other white people from the US and the Empire doing all kinds of things with their Oxford postgrad degrees and the money they (some of them) had received to do them. There were plenty of Americans and others of all kinds who I thought were wasting their time and someone’s money. There were many Rhodies who were doing truly wonderful things with their time in Ox and who were going to go out and do something good with their lives in academia or another profession. I think there is a place for policies of affirmative action and for complete transparency in how admissions are done that can help us to right historic wrongs, rid ourselves of unconscious bias, and ensure that everyone is given a fair hearing, but I think it’s also a good educational thing to do to give people of all races a chance to do something good with opportunities that they’ve had the good fortune to receive, and to give white people a chance to make our lives as best we can into something that isn’t actively exploitative. I think making all Rhodies conscious of the extent to which the money they have taken is tainted is perhaps a better learning opportunity for white Rhodies than letting them stay in their home countries and never knowing that such imperial legacies exist at all. But it does sadden and frustrate me when many Rhodies seem not to be aware of that history.

Running late now, but last point: one thing I have learned in my time in higher ed is that so much money is dirty and there are often really frustrating legal restrictions on why this can’t be fixed. In some sense it would be ideal if all these different bequests from slave traders and diamond miners and so on could be stripped of their significance and their ties to these particular individuals and aggregated into a general fund that could be used to provide need-based financial aid to all students on an equal basis. But not only are there really tight legal restrictions on doing so (and we can debate the justice of this, but when you’re going up against UK and EU law about bequests things get really complicated), one thing you lose in the process is the ability to force students to be aware of where that money is come from. We have so much cultural amnesia in the UK today about how everything that the UK is in 2015 has an imperial legacy. The names of buildings and institutions and pots of money allow those of us who teach British history to give our students a way in to this challenging and troubling topic. If we erase those visible remnants of the history, we risk even greater amnesia. Maybe it’s worth it, and I’m willing to be persuaded that’s the case. But it is a factor.

Sorry, I know I don’t toe the party line on this, but I guess my study of British and imperial history has given me a different way in to understanding the same issues and I hope we can eventually wind up on more or less the same page by different means. Also, I’m someone who has benefitted immeasurably from elite education, which continues to perpetuate racial and class equality in the anglo world today, but that–as a Jewish lady–I have only recently been able to partake of on equal terms. Inequality fucking sucks. And who has access to elite education is sometimes random and sometimes systematically unjust. But as someone who has decided to take the money and try to be good with it, I think it would be really disingenuous for me to proclaim that another approach is the more morally correct one.

20 December, in response to Mary Beard and some comments critical of my endorsement of her POV:

Hi folks – sorry that I don’t have the time to give this a proper lengthy reply, but I am sorry that instead of giving a proper lengthy comment on this post last night I also posted just two words. I rarely agree with every word of the things I post on FB, and this is no exception; I have also posted many things that express other views so hopefully this doesn’t stand for everything I’ve ever said or thought about the RMF/Woodrow Wilson/etc. debates. I’ve explained at great length in other FB comments what I think about RMF and the problem of statues, names, and legacies, so hopefully I don’t need to rehash it all again. I do think there is a flippancy to M.B.’s comments here that is not in good taste and suggests she hasn’t had very many conversations with students of color and other underprivileged students at her own university. She might also do well to remember the ugly, violent history of women’s call to be included at Cambridge. I’m with — on this one: maybe he and I, as Jews and me as a woman, can use our experiences of trying to take ownership of institutions that were not made for us to empathize with this situation; maybe that’s completely inadequate. But on the basis of the historical research I have done my current belief is that it isn’t possible completely to transform an institution like Oxford or Princeton, that was founded explicitly on exclusion of many populations, so that it will feel welcoming to all. I can see as feasible introducing certain policy measures that will make incremental progress towards that end, but I think we’re still ultimately caught in a double bind between denying history (which I believe is wrong) and allowing that history to exist and to oppress by its existence. I completely see why someone would make an argument that that means these places should not be allowed to exist and should be destroyed. I can’t agree because, well, they’ve given me a sense of belonging, purpose and joy that my life outside them hasn’t, and my life would not be worth living without them. So my responsibility as someone in that situation is to do as Beard says and take the money and try to be better with it, and I think she’s right that that’s what we can do with histories like that–we can take the money they give us, now thankfully accessible to people like me, and we can become historians. I think it would be really disingenuous for someone who has made the life choices I have to suggest something else, so I can see why Beard makes the argument she does.

Also P.S. my expert opinion is contra M.B. that Rhodes was worse than many of his contemporaries (rather like Wilson but with none of Wilson’s redeeming features).

Also thanks for disagreeing – I worry when people don’t disagree on FB that I’ve shocked, offended, and upset them so much as to stun them into silence, so I appreciate you engaging and voicing another POV because I don’t want to be hammering people over the head with something that is hurtful to them without being stopped.

29 December, in response to this, posted on a friend’s wall and roundly condemned by the ensuing FB conversation:

I don’t know. I’m not hugely sympathetic to the RMF claims or the style in which they frame them, but I also see that they are mostly coming from black students and that most of the people questioning them are white, which makes me second-guess my reaction. I can’t know what it’s like to be a black South African student come to Oxford, but I can imagine it’s a more difficult and troubling culture shock than the one I experienced when I came–and also why South African students might want instinctively to import a similar kind of cultural decolonization to the process they’ve gone through to remake their own country into something other than a settler colony. Even though there may well be some generic student activists who have jumped on to RMF as a vehicle for shouting at something or other, there’s also a serious story about what happens when the “empire strikes back”: what kinds of claims for inclusion are those whose ancestors were once British subjects entitled to make within Britain? (As a Canadian, I have the national franchise in Britain–South Africans don’t; EU citizens don’t.) So I actually see this as a story about history and about the kind of historical-mindedness that British (elite) culture has and maybe that former colonies’ self-determining national identity has been predicated on rejecting–and not primarily a story about coddled students even if there are elements of that. Personally I don’t think it’s possible to remake such a deeply, intrinsically historicist and conservative institution as Oxford in the image of another way of relating to the past and to present society, and so any gains that RMF make by way of statues are going to be decidedly illusory. To create more comfortable environments within Ox (which is to some extent worth doing, in terms of the fact that institutionalized racism is still a thing) probably entails working with the grain of the culture, and using history and historically-minded thinking in effective ways. But it remains the case that Ox last underwent major structural reforms in the mid-19th century and that most of those who now live and study in it now would not have been imagined as potential students then (as recently as the mid-20th century less than 10% of the UK population went to university at all). Culture shock is an inevitable part of the experience of coming to Ox for most students–and that may go double for Rhodes Scholars who (at least in the US) often apply for the scholarship because it is prestigious in their home country and not necessarily because doing a graduate degree at Ox is particularly enticing to them. They are often surprised to discover how little Ox resembles the university experiences of their home countries, which is probably for most students more like going to a redbrick. Cultural assimilation (of the kind that I tried to practice) is only going to seem like a worthy goal if you don’t view the culture of Ox as part of the heyday of empire (which in as much as it was constituted at around the same time of the heyday of empire and was part and parcel of the imperial project, it is); if you come to know what Ox is and then decide that it’s something in which you can’t ethically participate because you associate it with the white settlers who ruined your country, well, it’s going to be pretty hard to do anything other than find symbols to lash out at, like the Rhodes statue.

I haven’t read the Prof. of Divinity’s letter, and hadn’t heard about it before, but I’m in the process of qualifying as an expert in British & imperial history and my sense is that Rhodes is one of the real baddies: someone who was behind the curve on ideas about race even for his own time. I think Rhodies could probably be more honest with themselves about the fact that they are taking his money, but can see why that’s a difficult and confusing position for a young adult to be in, that only really becomes apparent once she or he leaves her own culture with its own standards of political correctness and goes somewhere else.

Sorry for the long comment!! I’m just on a bit of a crusade to bring historians’ voices to this conversation, since what is at issue really is history and how it’s interpreted. Even if I’m not sure that I buy RMF’s critique, I can see why they’re making it.

6 January, in response to this and an ensuing FB discussion:

Well… now we’re getting a bit into what I said I wouldn’t do (give an opinion on the controversy–I’m trying to do less of that) but my response to that would be to say that these things are very complicated. Almost everything Oxford is (now that there is next to no state funding for HE) is old, old money, tied up in the legacies of a lot of mess of British and imperial history: the dissolution of the monasteries, the Atlantic slave trade, the diamond mines of southern Africa. It would take a hell of a lot of work–a dedicated campaign that the entire university and its constituent colleges would have to get behind–to disentangle all that money. It would be illegal in some cases to discard or change the terms of certain bequests; in almost all cases I am sure that cash-strapped dons and administrators wouldn’t want to decline even what seem like regrettable bequests. And there aren’t easy solutions: the South African Rhodes Scholarships now also bear Nelson Mandela’s name, but I’m not sure anyone thinks that’s a comfortable or satisfactory response to the fact that they once explicitly excluded black students.

Oxford is a deeply conservative institution and British society more widely has deep and committed cultural amnesia about how empire has affected it and its history. I’m not at all surprised that a conversation about Cecil Rhodes’ relation to Oxford (which is considerable–his scholarships brought some of the very first foreign students in considerable numbers to the UK) on the terms of modern politics hasn’t been had before now. It’s obviously a good thing this conversation is being had. Things are being brought into the open that weren’t talked about before. Will it change anything substantive? I have to say I share some of the skepticism of the above op-ed author. But when you start digging into old institutions like this, evil often isn’t far from the surface. I sure hope there’s good there too, and I think one of the lessons we learn from institutional history is that it isn’t so easy to disentangle the two, that history and moral judgment can’t be made easily to go hand in hand.

On Decolonisation

some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:

I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.

I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.

II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.

III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.

IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.

V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.

VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.

VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.

VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.


Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.


Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Because I am at heart nothing more than a boring liturgically conservative Anglican, I wandered round the corner to evensong today with the expectation of hearing a sermon attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and hopefully getting to sing “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” Instead, this being St John the Divine, today had been designated “queer evensong,” all male pronouns referring to God had been replaced with female ones, and no reference to the liturgical calendar was made.

During the Magnificat a storm broke out, and the music was almost drowned out by loud thunder. So many idiots over the decades have tried to link extreme weather with their belief in their religious tradition’s condemnation of homosexuality. But I was reuniting with old friends in Princeton yesterday, who some years ago helped me to see love and fellowship in the defiant, catty, camp mockery of that kind of appeal to a higher power.

When I watched Russell Davies’ new TV series Cucumber last week, I remembered that what is so enduringly right about a certain camp gay tradition is the way so much of it is about putting up a bold front against self-hatred, fear, and shame, fiercely asserting one’s right to love and to be loved. Camp is not transhistorical, but the need to love and to be loved is, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the Christian and the gay traditions might have something to say to each other about that.


Acknowledgements: You know who you are.

The History of the University of Oxford

I was much struck, this rainy afternoon of Sunday of second week, by the text of the Vice-Chancellor’s annual Oration, published as a supplement to last week’s University Gazette. The Vice-Chancellor’s intimation that Oxford ought to be allowed to charge higher tuition has caused a lot of disconcerted muttering in common rooms in the last week, but he’s right that there is a large gap between the already outrageous-seeming £9,000 per student per year and the real cost of educating each student with the low teacher-student ratios, excellent library system, and other distinctively Oxonian features on which the University prides itself. He’s also right that tripling tuition does no one any good when that rise in income is more than undone by the loss of government funding for undergraduate education. I have been suspecting for years now that if Oxford and Cambridge hope to compete with the best American research universities, they need to become more like them in their approach to funding as well, both in terms of private donation (already well underway) and in terms of a massive rise in tuition and–I hope–a commensurate rise in financial aid for those who need it. I don’t know whether I trust the V-C’s politics (I mean, instead of throwing up his hands and saying “Well, so much for government funding; better look elsewhere”, he could be agitating for the renewal of that funding), but I do think he sees the present situation accurately. And hurrah for him pointing out that online courses are best suited for certain initiatives in the Department for Continuing Education, but perhaps not for everything the University does!

I love my university, and I love to study its history, in part because it serves as such an excellent case study in the workings of continuity and change. An institution that has for centuries sustained its own bizarre internal culture but also been inextricably and fundamentally linked to major world-historical events can tell us much about national and international politics, class and gender, and of course the history of ideas and of education. Present-day Oxford is telling in a way few institutions are in quite such a clear way about the ways in which the twenty-first century is rather like the nineteenth: I thought as much yesterday when, taking the minutes at an MCR meeting, I found myself adopting the phrases Sidgwick used when he took the minutes as Secretary for a number of University and college organizations; but it’s there too in the Vice-Chancellor’s reminder that the Department for Continuing Education is the modern-day descendant of the wonderful University Extension movement of the nineteenth century, which sought to make the university’s resources more accessible to members of the public who might not have the time, ability, money, level of preparation, or desire to complete a full degree course, and which first changed the idea of Oxford as the preserve of the moneyed elite so well-known to us from literary representations like Jude the Obscure. This institution tells us untold stories about an entire departed world and the kinds of relations between people and ideas that existed within it, which I see echoed all around me every day in the routines I follow and ceremonies I observe as a member of it.

Yet there is change too, and that change is in some respects farcical and in some worrying. The Gazette and the Oxford Magazine were once institutions, and I suspect I’m one of a very few these days who takes any great delight in sitting down in a common room or study and reading them; more troublingly, the editorial in the 0th week edition of the Oxford Magazine pointed out that, with the burgeoning of career administration and bureaucracy, Congregation (the so-called “parliament of dons”) is little more than ceremonial, its meetings ill-attended, existing only to wave through legislation already determined by a set of bureaucrats with no experience or even real stake in teaching or research. In this respect the “ancient universities” are very different now from how they were in the days long before their doors were opened to the Judes of this world, before government funding for undergraduate education—or, indeed, the very existence of research—was ever on the table. I’m certain that there must be a way for we university folk to have our cake and eat it too, that retaining some hold on government funding and the commitment to democratic access and an educated citizenry that comes with it does not necessarily entail red tape, efficiency experts, and the watering-down of all that is valuable here. I don’t know how to achieve that outcome any better than anyone else, but I suspect that the first step is to care: whether by supporting the lecturers’ strike on 31st October or by showing up or pressuring your nearest don to show up to a meeting of Congregation, or perhaps by taking a learned interest in the history of institutions such as this one—not from some quaint local-history, chronicling perspective, but from one that takes seriously the importance universities hold for the nation.

Some Brief Thoughts on Love

Between writing the chapter of my thesis on Symonds’ late work, and getting really seriously into E.M. Forster’s novels and essays, and having loads of conversations with my friends who are budding philosophers and psychoanalysts about the meaning of desire and love, I have been thinking a lot about the philosophy and ontology of love, and a lot about the space between loving a person and loving people, and a lot about the space between thinking about love and doing love. I was reminded that love can sometimes be very political—something that, these days, I often forget, despite my thesis topic—when I read a NYT column in which Frank Bruni criticized (as we have done here so many times) the “Born This Way” attitude to gay identity.

Bruni’s column begins with the story of the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has recently caused a storm of controversy by calling her “gayness”—in the form of her decision to, after years of partnership with a man, start a family with a woman—”a choice.” Bruni holds that, rather than thinking that Nixon has hurt the LGBT cause by declining to repeat the “being gay is not a choice” mantra, we ought to see things rather differently:

But while her critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed and used, they have no right to demand the kind of silence and conformity from Nixon that gay people have justly rebelled against. She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.

Besides which, there are problems with some gay advocates’ insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath.

By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been — and perhaps won’t be — scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they hitch it to a moving target. The exact dynamics through which someone winds up gay are “still an open question,” said Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association. “There is substantial evidence of various connections between genes, brain, hormones and sexual identity,” he said. “But those do not amount to a simple picture that A leads to B.”

Bruni goes on to point out that we shouldn’t need to argue that homosexuality is something with which we’re born to argue that it should fall under the rubric of civil liberties. As should come as no surprise, this is nothing new. As I’ve been writing about this week, Symonds knew that trying to probe the medical and psychological reasons why we are the way we are, why we desire what and whom we desire, can be one route to understanding ourselves. That’s why he read widely in the field of sexual science (though wound up dismissing as ill-founded or illogical most of its findings), was interested in the developing field of the study of human consciousness, and collaborated with a doctor, Havelock Ellis, on an academic book about “sexual inversion” that was intended to be equal parts cultural-historical and medical. (Symonds died before the manuscript was completed, and Ellis’ subsequent work shifted it heavily towards the medical side.)

But although Symonds tried to understand sexual science, I don’t think he ever wound up thinking that it had helped him to understand what it is like to love, and especially to love outside the patterns for which one’s particular society has words and rules. Some of the first questions that Symonds asked about desire and love, when he was a teenager, were about how to keep from being controlled by one’s desires, how to translate desire into something good and noble, how to better oneself through loving and being loved. The literature that Symonds used to answer questions like these was catholic, but it was overwhelmingly literary: Plato, Dante, Walt Whitman, and many others. And after a couple years of work on sexual science, he came back to the canon—the last book he ever wrote was a study of Whitman’s poetry.

I think this is because Symonds was above all a humanist, and an ethicist. Though he was curious about how many people in his culture were, like him, homosexual, and about how they got that way, he knew that wouldn’t help him to answer the questions he believed to be most fundamentally human. Knowing definitively whether our desires were determined by our genes or moulded in early childhood or culturally constructed or something we can shape through conscious effort or something else entirely does not help us to understand how to get on in the world once desire and love—for anyone, anything—are things that are part of our life experiences. Having a word like “gay” or “straight” to call ourselves doesn’t really help us to know when it is right to reach out and touch the object of our desires, and when to let well enough alone. Knowing when in our lives we first began to feel the stirrings of desire—and knowing that that slight nausea and tightness in the stomach and quickening of the heart is “desire”—doesn’t help us to translate what we want of others into our willingness to give ourselves to them. And being political about the right to marriage, as noble a cause as that may be, doesn’t help us to be married, or even more generally “companioned” or “partnered”—doesn’t help us to turn our bodily wants into the kind of connection that not only assuages loneliness but leads the soul to sprout wings and take flight.

At the end of his article, Bruni coins a phrase that’s wonderfully admitting of nuance, “moved to love”:

I use the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself.

We love in the most unpredictable ways. Sometimes we find ourselves loving in ways that our society clearly doesn’t admit, and we write books and wage campaigns to have our love declared an equal inalienable right. But sometimes we merely find ourselves loving in ways that are a little different, or unexpected: the best friends who, without ever having sex, give all of themselves to each other, reminding those of us who study the homoerotic literary tradition that Adhesiveness and “the love of comrades” have always been more than an identity politics; the woman who finds that the shifting genders of her lovers, long past the accepted period of “experimentation,” defies the easy application of a label of sexual orientation; the woman in her early twenties who feels at the same time as if she could be fifteen or thirty-five, and who against all her expectations finds herself on the eve of her last undergraduate term feeling a desire for connection that she never dreamed she’d feel, and who turns to men who write about impossible love for other people in other times and places to explain it.

These are understandings of the muddles and fallibilities of love and the humans who are moved to it that transcend any kind of identity politics or label or taxonomic, empirical explanation. As Symonds knew 120 years ago, human feeling is a many-splendored thing that must be understood as such, not crammed into any kind of rubric. Our only duty is to ensure that this powerful force is to be used responsibly and well, purposed to the highest good of making the world better and brighter, and that the communities we build allow for this to be a central and noble endeavor.

QOTD (2011-10-30); or, On What Matters

Professor Stefan Collini, concluding his remarks at Cambridge on “The Very Idea of the University,” 11 October 2011:

We all in our way have an obligation to try to hand on to our successors an institution that has managed, through difficult times, to keep alive and embody what is most precious in this particular idea of the university. Organised scepticism is one of its animating principles: that questioning of all claims to truth, no matter how familiar or well-established, and no matter how elevated the academic or political authority who makes them….

As I hope every student who passes through this university comes to realise, the house of intellect is in one sense necessarily a democracy. Yes, of course we have our rituals and our hierarchies, but in the end, across a supervision room or seminar table or lab bench or wherever, the powers that ultimately govern our doings are the better arguments and the better evidence, and it doesn’t matter who puts them forward.

So whatever decisions we make in the present about our funding or our institutional structures or our forms of teaching or assessment, or the hundreds of other practical things we have to decide about, I think we have no choice but to be committed to handing on to our successors an institution which is still able across the whole field of human activity to challenge the current state of understanding, and which is always free to suggest that there are other places to start and other things worth understanding. And keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—really alive, not just paying lip service to it when we put all those lifeless abstract nouns into those life-destryoing report forms, but keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—is what all of us, in this room and in this university and in other universities, have to regard as our priority.

I should make clear that this does not seem to me a comfortable or easy position. In fact, it’s a very radical notion in its way, because it says that we’re committed to this kind of freedom of inquiry come what may. And what may come are not just government directives or external decisions that we may regard as misguided and even damaging, but—an even truer test of our mettle—what may come includes those moral and political values to which we, as ethical agents and responsible citizens, feel a strong commitment: values which these days often take the form of, for example, ensuring for others a genuine respect and equality of treatment and improvement of life chances, and so on. Those are all hugely important things, but they’re not, I submit, primary and distinctive responsibilities of universities, and at times they may even conflict with the prime task of extending understanding. This is not the least of the ways in which the very idea of the university is such an outrageous one.

If we are only trustees for our generation of the peculiar cultural achievement that is the university, then those of us whose lives have been shaped by the immeasurable privilege of studying and teaching in a university are not entitled to give up on the attempt to make the case for its best purposes and to make that case tell in the public domain, however discouraging the immediate circumstances. We owe it to those who preserved and enriched the traditions of inquiry which we have inherited, and we owe it too to the generations yet unborn who should not be denied the precious opportunity to wander through the galleries of the human mind with no more fixed purpose than a curiosity to understand how such mangifience came to be and how it can be renewed and extended. A sense of our place in this longer history chastises the petty vanities and foolish crotchets of the present, but it can be inspiring; and we reflect that, even in circumstances that may have looked to them as little propitious as ours do sometimes to us, no previous generation entirely surrendered this ideal of the university to those ontological fantasists who think they represent the ‘real world’. I deliberately choose there that rhetorical excess, because, as Newman well knew, such verbal serpents can be the carrier—even though it can in no straightforward propositional sense be the statement—of the mind’s drive for fuller and deeper comprehension, a drive which it is the function of universities to allow to pursue its endless quest without being subject to the requirement to produce some measurable practical outcome in the present.

Please do not abandon this idea of the university, however debased you may think any manifestation of it has temporarily come to be. Tending to this idea may remind us, amid distracting circumstances, that we are indeed merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create and which it is not ours to destroy.

All twenty-one years of my life in universities, I have had the sense that I belong to something much larger than myself, much larger than my family and all the people my family knows, much larger than my friends and my colleagues and my professors and all the people my friends and colleagues and professors have ever known. This is why I’ve not left yet and could never imagine leaving: these institutions together stand for something palpable and valuable in the web of things that make us human and alive and worth wondering at.

I recommend that you follow the link above and listen to the whole of Prof. Collini’s talk, only whose last five or so minutes I have transcribed here. In fifty-one captivating minutes, he makes an eloquent and at times even fist-pumping attempt to carve out a cultural space for the university past and present that runs counter to, and at times even directly critiques, the dominant cultural rhetoric of output, productivity, and other economic terms that we today suppose universities are generally good for boosting. He points out that in the so-called “real world” that universities are claimed not to be sufficiently accountable to, people don’t just work as mindless automatons the way the language of business and industry might suggest. Rather, they wonder and wander and love and question their purpose in life, and they often actively seek out the ideas that the University (as Platonic form) stores for the sake of those who seek ways of understanding where they fit into the world and how the world fits into them.

But if there is anything that is lacking in this sermon (for so he self-mockingly calls it) by one of my all-time heroes where the cause of defending the idea of the university is concerned, it is that he presents the university as a rather static institution: withstanding the vagaries of time, of trends, of economic systems, and tended by custodians who seek to keep it true to its founding principles. To an extent, this is indeed what is so marvelous about the university, and believe in it so passionately that I hope to be fortunate enough to grow up to be one of those stewards of human knowledge myself. And to be sure, Collini does impress upon the listener the fact that the university is always moving knowledge, always stretching its boundaries further and testing every intellectual proposition put to it on the most rigorous of grounds.

But—if I may be so presumptuous—what I think he leaves out is the lifesaving grace (if you will; Collini started this off by calling his summing-up a sermon!) that universities may grant those who find human flourishing within their walls. There are reasons he might have done so: it sounds absolutely silly to talk about this, especially if you’re a rather famous, eminent, and brilliant Cambridge don. But I am a 21-year-old undergraduate, and it is my role in life to be silly, so that is precisely what I am going to proceed to do. We caretakers are not guarding all this knowledge for nothing: we are guarding it so that eighteen-year-olds may come to stay for a while and learn that they have best selves, and that their best selves are worth being. Of course, not all eighteen-year-olds discover this in universities. But some—and I can speak only from my own experience—cannot find it anywhere else. These, I find, are the ones most likely to take a life sentence, to become the next caretakers. But even those who do not know for three or four years that they are growing within and beyond themselves may find themselves years later thanking those fustian caretakers for keeping alive something eternal so that it might inside them become quite dynamic indeed.

As I write this, I find that I am sounding to myself rather Platonist and perhaps even rather Hegelian, which is either the product of a day spent writing about the influence of Hegel in Symonds’ early scholarship on Greek literature or a reflection of the reactionary Victorianism that characterizes a great deal of my own critique of political economy these days. Just about eight months ago now, it was reading Arnold and Ruskin (and not, in fact, Marx a year before) that gave me a sense of possibility outside the totalizing rhetoric of capitalism, of industry, of production, value, return, reward, winning, profiting, gaining, optimizing. Of course, as Collini argues, it’s the rational inquiry that universities support that can help us to recognize that we all live according to more discourses than that of political economy after all. But we shouldn’t forget, I think, that when that happens it’s not just that we have a better society right now, or that human understanding is safeguarded, in some abstract way, for the next generation. It’s also that hearts and minds are changed within universities. Speaking as someone who feels myself growing and becoming almost by the day, I know that’s an absolutely extraordinary and beautiful thing.