Monday, January 26, 2009
The Intellectual Underclass
Written by a distinguished member of the Institute for Pataphysical Research, the University of Muri
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Stanley Fish dubbed himself "The Last Professor." Academia, he bemoans, is not what it used to be. The tenured professor is by now a rare breed, overrun by a horde of adjuncts. The pure spirit of the humanities dwindles, while the instrumental rationalism of more "practical" disciplines triumphs. It is as if (and here his argument is only implicit) the whole edifice of western civilization rests upon the shoulders of those distinguished professors with their six figures annual salary.
What Fish and Co. fail to understand is that this is by no means the end; it is just a new beginning. After two hundred years in which the academic system reigned supreme, we are witnessing today the slow but steady rise of an intellectual underclass. The prototype of this new class may indeed be the adjunct professor, who gets paid "by the pound" for each class that he teaches, but next to him stand strong a whole array of intellectuals that cannot find (or do not care for) a privileged place within the university system. This intellectual underclass, toiling in the sweatshops of spirit, is about to mount a silent revolution. It is from the ranks of the gritty intellectual underclass, and not the moribund intellectual bourgeoisie, that the true thinkers of the new century will rise.
We are looking for neither a party nor a union to represent the intellectual underclass, in an attempt to get a more lucrative salary or better benefits. This is certainly important, but it is far from being the main problem that the intellectual underclass is facing today. In a much more elementary level, what we need is first and foremost a true consciousness that we exist. Then we also need to start feeling pride in our existence, conviction in our integrity, and confidence about our potential power. We are neither outcasts, nor victims, nor exceptions. We (are about to become the new) rule. The academy is like a dam that was designed to contain the critical mass of the intelligentsia, making sure that it will not overflow. But today this dam is full of cracks, and the water begins to flood the valley that was kept artificially dry for too long.
One of the crucial things that Marx remained blind to (which is usually true about most thinkers) was his own predicament. Living in abject poverty in a small London flat while working in the British Library, he was not the bourgeois that he sometimes pretended to be. He was also not a proletarian, because reading, thinking, and writing cannot be considered (at least in Arendt's eyes) as labor. Rather, Marx was one of the founding fathers of the intellectual underclass.
During a meeting of Cornell's literature department to decide the fate of Nabokov's tenure, one of the professors objected by saying that allowing a writer to be a part of a literature department is not unlike letting an elephant to be a zookeeper. This is to prove that established professors could still have a good insight once in a while. Indeed: professors are zookeepers, keeping in orderly cages specimens of untamed life for all to look at from a safe distance.
In a recent article in Haaretz, Yitzhak Laor writes about one of his repeated nightmares, in which "professor Benjamin eventually managed to move to Israel, to get his tenure, to become an average schemer, and to refuse to accept an Arab student to his department, even though such an acceptance was the student's only way to enter the country." With this in mind, he confesses that he cannot help but muse "how beautiful the suicide on the French-Spanish border seems at times."