The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

University and Entrepreneurship

Again, I want to look at the role and goals of the university and the challenges it faces, concentrating in this post on the university where I work, DCU. Michael Burawoy, writing principally about a US context, identifies three major crises afflicting the university at the present time: a budgetary crisis, a regulatory crisis, and a legitimation crisis (“The Great American University“, Contemporary Sociology, 41:2, 2012, pp. 139-149).

Burawoy identifies the budgetary crisis as the most important. The situation is more complicated, however, than just calling for more money. Burawoy mentions that “University budgets have grown astronomically” (141). This brings its own problems: in return for such huge investment, universities are expected to give back in a quantifiable way, through patents, aiding industry and developing joint ventures. It is a striking paradox that the increase in budgets is what leads to a budgetary crisis, but such is capitalism (or just human greed?): even too much is never enough.

That is the trouble of working in the modern university: though huge sums are involved, administration and bureaucracy expand so that each department, each research centre, still feels constantly economically pressured, some to a greater extent than others. This is not going to change any time soon. University funding is becoming increasingly linked to industry and to the business economy, as in the big EU funding call Horizon 2020, for which the development of “Competitive Industries” is one of the three central roles of the university. The others are “Excellent Science” and “Better Society”, but it is no accident that “Better Society” is the last-named of the three in the call. The listing on the Horizon website should be read as reflecting actual priorities: 1) science; 2) industry; 3) society. The lines between the university and industry/business are thus being blurred. With that will come the constant pressure to increase profit margins, to provide quantitative evidence of impact and economic contribution.

The strategic plan currently in operation in DCU is titled “Transforming Lives and Societies“. The Chancellor’s Introduction thereto refers to an emphasis on “social, cultural and economic progress”. So already we note that DCU is not emphasizing the economic quite to the extent that Horizon does, instead giving first place to the social, and to the broad idea of “transformation”. This is continued in the President’s Introduction, which names the primary responsibilities of the university as being to:

  • our students
  • our society
  • our economy

So society comes before economy, but the university’s responsibility to the economy at large is still significant.

Reading a little deeper into the Strategy Plan, and DCU’s established identity as the “University of Enterprise” becomes clearer. “Enterprise” has been the university’s USP in relation to other Irish university for some time. The university’s first strategic objective relates to the students. The second is: “To be recognized internationally as a leading University of Enterprise”. This has two main strands: one involves making each student and staff member into an entrepreneur; the other involves engaging with enterprise locally, nationally and globally.

In the priority given to this objective, the properly economic displaces the more broadly social. An entrepreneur is identified by his or her economic activities. The most salient definition from OED:

One who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss

Being an entrepreneur is related to financial risk.  Learning how to take financial risks is key to the identity of the student.

But I am still an academic who has been schooled very much in Victorian literature. Therefore, the idea that the cultivation of financial speculation is the desideratum of the university, or even that it is a good at all, is immediately problematic. The centrality of the figure of the entrepreneur in DCU’s strategic plan places the economic viewpoint of the university firmly within capitalist orthodoxy. Indeed, the purest form of new capitalism is based around the idea of the “entrepreneur-of-the-self”:

[E]ach worker becomes his or her own capitalist, the “entrepreneur-of-the-self” who decides how much to invest in his or her own future education, health and so on, paying for these investments by getting indebted […]. [E]veryone is a capitalist getting indebted in order to invest. We are here a step further from the formal equality between the capitalist and the worker in the eyes of the law – now they are both capitalist investors (Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, loc 2023 et seq.)

In summation, it remains debatable whether promotion of a purely capitalist vision of the self (i.e. the entrepreneur) is a good way of fulfilling a university’s responsibility to society – or, indeed, to students. But with that note of irresolution I must conclude, and will continue to think around such matters in future posts as I complete a series of posts on the language of the strategic plans of Irish universities.



Interdisciplinary Epistemology and the Future of the Humanities/the Individual

Interesting new article on interdisciplinarity, particularly what it means for humanities: “Bachelard, Cassirer and Early Interdisiplinary Humanities“, by Maria-Ana Tupan (Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 8:4, 2016). Tupan quotes Sowon S. Park on the role of humanists in this new interdisciplinary dawn:

[H]umanists bear some responsibility for making accessible the rich observations of human mind to scientific research. The translation of literary terms into cognitive terms and vice versa, which is one of the primary activities of cognitive literary criticism, render a valuable service to the course of consilience by opening up the possibility of the two cultures talking to one another.

This “making accessible” of observations to scientific research still places humanities in an apparently subservient role to science, but at  least so far as their place within academia is concerned, humanities do seem destined for such a role – at best – in the foreseeable future. Any less modest claim than this may be doomed to failure.

Tupan’s central contention is that epistemology is no longer unified. At the level of possibilities for personal identification, this means that the scholar is dead and gone, and replaced by the research man. This idea is from Heidegger, quoted by Tupan:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written

This is a recognizable portrait. The individuality of the scholar gives way to the need to co-operate and compromise that the researcher deals with. Cultivating erudition is not something that one can be expected to make a career out of; rather each epistemological decision is made within a much more present social and economic context, with an ever-increasing need to justify one’s research according to the latest metrics.

Finally, citing Niklas Luhmann, Tupan writes: “In a highly developed society, discourses are not reflective of individual minds but connected to a higher order which is the communication system of society. ” This notion of the entire subsumption of the individual mind in the “communication system” may be disturbing. Can we really commit to consider the communication system a “higher order” to which our very minds are subservient – not just our behaviour, but our epistemology as well? This truly would mark the end of the enlightenment and of Kant’s “public use of reason“. Instead of “Think, but obey!“, we face the injunction: “Don’t think. Also, obey!”


David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946): Casting and the Bildungsroman

Yesterday, I discussed Brian McFarlane on Great Expectations and its numerous adaptations. McFarlane gives most space to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), widely acknowledged as the best screening of the novel, if not the best of all Dickens adaptations. McFarlane saves this one for last:

I have deliberately left it until the end of this book to see whether any of the other versions, on screens large or small, might offer a serious challenge to its pre-eminence. They don’t. ( Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film [2008], 127)

McFarlane’s enthusiasm for Lean’s film prompted me to rewatch it. My own feeling about the film is the same as it was after the first time I watched it: I love the first 38 minutes, and can do without the remaining 75. There is a very simple reason for this. As McFarlane notes early in the book, Great Expectations is a bildungsroman: a novel that traces “the development of the protagonist’s mind and character, as he passes from childhood through varied experiences – and usually through a spiritual crisis – into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world” (M.H. Abrams, quoted in McFarlane, 3). There is a serious difficulty in filming a bildungsroman in that the protagonist passes from childhood to maturity, and it is generally physically unfeasible for the same actor to play the protagonist at all stages of the film. Generally, there will be two: in this case, “Young Pip” and “[Older] Pip”

Young Pip is Anthony Wager, aged 13/14 at the time, a totally untrained and inexperienced actor, who gives a compelling and naturalistic performance.


Anthony Wager as Young Pip in the opening scene of the film

Older Pip is John Mills, a well-established actor who had started his training at a dancing school in the 1920s. He was aged 38 at the time of shooting.

The transition from Young Pip to Pip that takes place on 38 minutes is an extremely awkward one. The film allows six years to pass unrepresented as Pip follows his apprenticeship. This lacunae of six years is not present in the novel, and its function is obvious: to prepare the audience for a physically changed Pip. We fade out on Pip and Estella walking down the stairs of Satis House, the dialogue between them two and Mrs Havisham having established that they will not see each other again, and that Pip is about to embark on an apprenticeship, and we fade in on the blacksmith’s forge, with John Mill’s voiceover announcing:

It was in the sixth year of my apprenticeship, and it was a Friday night.


The shot, with Pip in silhouette, that announces the passage of six years from the preceding scene.

Yet nothing can adequately prepare us for the Pip we see before us: in reality, Mills was 24 (!) years older than Wager, rather than 6, and he looks it. We are immediately jarred out of the suspension of disbelief the film has created. Age aside, their physical appearances and demeanours are nothing alike, and their acting styles, too, are diametrically opposed. Wager was naturalistic; Mills is mannered, obviously a schooled actor. Wager’s Pip was hesitant and timid; Mills is smiling and open-faced.


John Mills’ first appearance as Pip in the film

This single piece of careless casting mars the film – irretrievably, for me. Any sense of the character is lost. Probably Mills as a well-known actor was the most important presence to Lean. So perhaps a different young Pip would have worked, though I hesitate to say it, for I think that Wager is excellent and that Mills’ performance has not dated well.

We all probably know examples of this: it is a staple of the bildungsroman, as I have said, that at least two actors are often called upon, but I think this is the single most damaging example of it I have seen. (The Estella transition is also pretty jarring – perhaps this was a blind spot of Lean’s.) Much as there is to admire about this film, I prefer Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948): an easier book to film, if only because it is not a bildungsroman and we only know the protagonist as a child. Any thoughts? Am I exaggerating the importance of this element? Are there other bildungsroman films which suffer from a similar casting problem?


Brian McFarlane’s Great Expectations (2008)

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (first published in 1860-61) has been consistently adapted and re-adapted for the screen since the advent of cinema. It still ranks behind Oliver Twist and  A Christmas Carol in the most-adapted-Dickens tables, but Brian McFarlane’s Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film (2008) demonstrates the rich adaptation history of this text.

McFarlane is, perhaps first and foremost, a great admirer of Dickens’ novel. It deals, he announces at the outset, with the “universals of human experience” (1). He even believes that “everything in this novel does work towards its ultimate coherence” (12), which is a big statement, and one which makes it clear that McFarlane holds modernist rather than post-modernist views of the text, views in which coherence and unity of purpose lead to aesthetic greatness.

This can lead to a specific problem with regard to study of adaptations: the tendency to use comparison with the novel for evaluative purposes. Anything that is different is seen as a failure, anything that is similar to the novel or that seems to recall its “spirit” is lauded. This is an incredibly prevalent response to adaptations, both among laypersons and adaptation scholars. McFarlane is very aware of this, and denounces all those who concentrate on “the misguided notion of ‘fidelity'” (87), “the foolish and irrelevant question of ‘fidelity'” (143) to the source text. He makes several such denunciations throughout the book.

The problem is that such repeated and even excessive disclaimers don’t really serve to hide the fact that McFarlane frequently employs a covert fidelity methodology to judge the adaptations. This is particularly true of those he doesn’t like (he’s much more insightful on films and series he does like, of which more anon). On the 1934 film version, he opens with the complaint that “it never begins to feel like the original” (83). On the 1975 film:

For all that one adheres to the notion that a film, adaptation or not, must be primarily judged on how it stands as a film, it is hard to suppress the feeling that if Hardy et al had taken serious heed of what Dickens was up, they might have made a more engrossing film. (108)

The apologetic disclaimer followed by the resort to fidelity criticism is typical of the book. There is a basic tension in McFarlane’s stance. What this book demonstrates, really, is the need for a coming to terms with the widespread notion of fidelity, rather than the palpably anxious renunciations that here co-exist with a continued use of the source text as an aesthetic touchstone.

But this attitude relates mostly to the adaptations that McFarlane does not like, principally the 1934 and 1975 films. He is considerably better on those adaptations he does approve of. Among these is the 1999 tv series starring Ioan Gruffodd and Justine Waddell. Here, McFarlane makes some interesting points about how the series “offers a way of reading the novel that was not available to its first readers” (76), giving a close reading of certain scenes and shots wherein the politics of the novel are transformed into something more contemporary. Feminist elements are present in this series; there is an “increased interest in the damaged lives of women” (78), such as Mrs Joe, Mrs Havisham and Estella. McFarlane’s point, too, about the way that the positivity of the conclusion in Lean’s film gives way to a sense of atrophy in this series is interesting and thought-provoking. Such ideological shifts in the narrative are often the most interesting things about adaptations through different time-periods, so this was a welcome change in approach.

Methodologically speaking, McFarlane is a narratologist (as outlined in his earlier monograph Novel to Film). This looms large here, too, as he breaks up the plot of Great Expectations into its “cardinal functions” and then compares this plot to that of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) (he does this in more detail in Novel to Film) the two plots are very similar, and it is an interesting exercise in adaptation practice to study how Lean has translated Dickens’ novel, changing only for concision, hardly ever for aesthetic purposes:

There may be several such omissions but the film “changes” very little in the matter of events and the perspectives from which they are viewed (150).

Equally important is the discussion of how Lean retained the emphasis on Pip’s subjectivity without using much in the way of voiceover. Here notions of subjective camera-work, composition of screen space and Pip’s near omnipresence constitute McFarlane’s main argument, and it is a convincing one (again, this is gone into in more detail in Novel to Film). This more technical filmic analysis provides another layer to the book, complementing the narrative analysis and the cultural analysis. Narrative analysis is McFarlane’s forte, but his ability to incorporate other approaches adds much to the readability of this book.

Good points about this book are the narratological analysis, which is the most systematic yet attempted in adaptation study; the cultural analysis, which is less methodologically developed – this may disturb the scholar but it makes it more accessible to the lay-reader; and the technical filmic analysis, which is, again, not as developed as the narratological, but which shows McFarlane’s ability to incorporate different approaches. His style is generally approachable and clear. Bad points are the contradictory attitude towards fidelity, the sometimes over-reliance on evaluative language, and the fact that some of the case studies are less substantial than others (especially with regard to the books, plays and radio series that are dealt with, apparently from memory based, in some cases, on a single encounter).

Tomorrow, I will post on the David Lean film Great Expectations (1946), McFarlane’s favorite version, but one which I find to be flawed for a simple reason that McFarlane doesn’t go into in his book. (here)



Moody shots from the great opening scene of Lean’s Great Expectations

The Most Frequently Taught Fictional Texts in (US) Universities

The Open Syllable Project collects the booklists of over 1m syllabi (mostly US) and one can browse a list the books used on all of these syllabi (ordered by frequency). There are over 933,000 books listed altogether, starting with the most commonly assigned book of all: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, on almost 3,400 course lists. There are all sorts of investigations that can be done on this list, but for the moment I am just going to look at the works of fiction (mostly novels, but some that would be classed as novellas or short stories) that appear in the top 100 of the list. They are:

5. Frankenstein (Shelley)

15. Heart of Darkness (Conrad)

24. Things Fall Apart (Achebe)

36. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

43. Beloved (Morrison)

47. Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

50. The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins)

55. The Awakening (Chopin)

57. Candide (Voltaire)

67. Invisible Man (Ellison)

70. Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

71. Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston)

76. Brave New World (Huxley)

87. Mrs Dalloway (Woolf)

91. The Metamorphosis (Kafka)

97. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

98. The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne)

There are 17 works of fiction listed above, but Huckleberry Finn actually appears twice (with slight variations on the title), at 47 and at 97, so there’s really 16. Though the Open Syllabus Project appears to be well researched and well presented, this is a somewhat glaring oversight. Adding the scores together for both entries, it is clear that Huckleberry Finn should appear much higher on the list (in 10th position, by my calculations).

Some facts:

  • Among the 16 texts, 7 are by women, 9 by men.
  • 8 are by Americans, 4 English, 1 Pole (Conrad, although he was living in England throughout his writing career), 1 Nigerian, 1 French, 1 German.
  • 8 from the 20th century, 7 from the 19th century, 1 from the 17th century (Voltaire).

The theme of race is what really jumps out in this selection: Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart. The last-named two are also about colonialism, and they are also 2 of the  3 most-frequently assigned fictional texts, which illustrates the centrality of the subject in US academia.

There is certainly some sense of the much-discussed “opening up the canon” here, but there is obviously a marked Eurocentrism to the choices. The exception is Achebe’s novel, though I would point out that the irony here is that Things Fall Apart is an obvious rebuttal of the super-canonical Heart of Darkness (of which Achebe was famously critical), so it is the most European of all African novels. There’s nothing from South America or Asia.

The old Leavisite canon is still there: Austen and Conrad make it; George Eliot and Henry James don’t. Dickens, liminal and semi-canonical in Leavis’ opinion, bubbles just under the top 100 here too (Great Expectations at 112). The continuing relevance of Conrad is clear: his emphasis on race and colonial relations in Heart of Darkness keep interest in his work alive, rather than for the purely literary qualities that Leavis sought (indeed, he thought Heart of Darkness one of Conrad’s lesser efforts, as he discusses in The Great Tradition). As for Austen, the case is less clear-cut. Certainly, she explored female subjectivity and the social relations of upper-class women in depth, but unlike Conrad she knew nothing of class or racial struggle. I think Raymond Williams’ account of Austen’s viewpoint as a social novelist, from which some things, some activities, some people, simply could not be seen, still stands up:

The land is seen primarily as an index of revenue and position; its visible order and control are a valued product, while the process of working it is hardly seen at all.


She is concerned with the conduct of people who, in the complications of improvement, are repeatedly trying to make themselves into a class. But where only one class is seen, no classes are seen. Her people are selected though typical individuals, living well or badly within a close social dimension. Cobbett never, of course, saw them as closely or as finely; but what he saw was what they had in common: the underlying economic process. (The Country and the City)

The fact that such a partial view has such resonance among the educationally privileged of 21st-century America is revealing in itself, and worthy of further reflection. And there is much more to provoke reflection in the results of the Open Syllabus Project, well worth a look for anyone interested in the nature of contemporary third level education.

Academic Civic Engagement: Epistemology of the Group v. Epistemology of the Individual

I have been prompted to reflect on the Idea of the University by several articulations thereof I have come across recently, including the Strategic Plan (2012-2017) of my own institution, Dublin City University:

We are the antithesis of the ‘Ivory Tower’ university and, through our actions, reflect a clear commitment to the pursuit of symbiotic relationships with our city, our region and our nation across all of our core activities.

So that is the binary we are faced with: at one extreme we have the “ivory tower”, at the other “civic engagement“, “social responsibility (USR)” and the like. It is the latter which is dominant in contemporary discourse, not only among newer and more business-oriented universities like DCU, but also even among those institutions old enough to actually have been part of the “ivory tower” set-up. Take Trinity College Dublin, by far Ireland’s oldest, established in 1592. TCD’s strategic plan has nine goals, and these include “strengthen community” and “engage wider society”. Even closer to the historic ideal of the “ivory tower” is Cambridge University, but here, too, the concept of the “ivory tower” is rejected – the “myth” “exploded”, indeed. The point is that no university today would be caught dead branding itself an “ivory tower”; rather words like civic engagement, community, social responsibility, social dimension, etc. will always crop up in any university’s mission statements.

Revealing, also, is the EU take on the subject. The EU provides much funding for third-level institutions, so this take is important. In the London Communique on the European Higher Education Area (2007), the future of third-level education was described as follows:

Building on our rich and diverse European cultural heritage, we are developing an EHEA based on institutional autonomy, academic freedom, equal opportunities and democratic principles that will facilitate mobility, increase employability and strengthen Europe’s attractiveness and competitiveness.

So the three goals for third level relate to mobility, employability and competitiveness. Here we see clearly the outward-looking orientation of the project. Employability describes particularly the results of academic study outside academy, in the labour market; competitiveness is again strongly linked to economic ideas and to performance in the market place. So, within the EU, there can be little place for an “ivory tower” university.

What, then, have we relinquished with the death of the “ivory tower” model? Central to John Henry Newman’s classic 19th-century text The Idea of the University are the notions of “seclusion” and “retirement”:

He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. The greatest thinkers have been too intent on their subject to admit of interruption; they have been men of absent minds and idiosyncratic habits, and have, more or less, shunned the lecture room and the public school. Pythagoras, the light of Magna Græcia, lived for a time in a cave. Thales, the light of Ionia, lived unmarried and in private, and refused the invitations of princes. Plato withdrew from Athens to the groves of Academus. Aristotle gave twenty years to a studious discipleship under him. Friar Bacon lived in his tower upon the Isis. Newton indulged in an intense severity of meditation which almost shook his reason. {xiv} The great discoveries in chemistry and electricity were not made in Universities. Observatories are more frequently out of Universities than in them, and even when within their bounds need have no moral connexion with them. Porson had no classes; Elmsley lived good part of his life in the country. I do not say that there are not great examples the other way, perhaps Socrates, certainly Lord Bacon; still I think it must be allowed on the whole that, while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.

Note how this association of seclusion with learning is considered to be common sense, and that Newman is laying no claim to novelty here, merely confirming what he takes to be a widespread and almost inarguable view. We have seen a very striking about-turn since then. With regard to the university, our faith in seclusion and retirement has been totally shattered, replaced instead by a faith in committees, meetings, conferences, expert groups and engagement. Knowledge is not gained by the individual, but by the group. There are simply no (or few) avenues in place for individual knowledge to be accepted into the epistemological structure of the modern university.

I, a (part-time) academic of sorts, see some dangers in this epistemological shift. The knowledge of the group, that which is taught in schools, churches, families and other social institutions and now in online communities creates its own problems of groupthink, of the hive mind, the madness of crowds, the folie a deux. Ultimately, there is really no reason for assuming that the wisdom of the group is any more epistemologically grounded than that of the individual. There is only the contingent and temporary swing of the pendulum. One could also go into the congruity between the devaluation of purely scholastic knowledge and our old friend the neoliberal agenda, the much-bemoaned corporatization of the university.

Let us recall here Thomas Carlyle’s once-influential plea for the epistemology of the individual from his early work “Signs of the Times“:

Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand […]. Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once and with the mere natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issues prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery, wherewith to speak it and do it. Without machinery they were hopeless, helpless […].

With individuals, in like manner, natural strength avails little. No individual now hopes to accomplish the poorest enterprise single-handed, and without mechanical aids; he must make an interest with some existing corporation, and till is field with their oxen. In these days, more emphatically than ever, “to live, signifies to unite with a party, or to make one.” Philosophy, Science, Art, Literature, all depend on machinery.

We academics, tenured and precariat, need to learn how to speak again without machinery, without committees, without peer review, without public dinners, but as individuals. Of course, that’s what people do on the internet, but just because the lay community does it, does not mean that academia should vacate the field of individual speech. Yes, we risk much getting down to that level, unprotected by disciplinary expertise, but without that, the relevance of the university is significantly diminished. The “ivory tower” university where the individual could learn and write in relative seclusion had, ironically, relatively little difficulty in speaking a general human language that was comprehensible to those outside the walls, but today’s engaged university will have to relearn speaking outside of the discipline if it is to really engage beyond rhetorical flourishes.

Thesis now available on DCU database: The Unspeakable Victorian

My PhD thesis, The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation, is now available open-access on the DCU doras platform: here, one year after I submitted the final version. Here’s the abstract:

This thesis aims to provide an analysis of comparative ideologies through close reading of 19th-century fictional texts and their 20th-/21st-century film and television adaptations, isolating similarities and differences in the presentation of specific socio-political issues. The fictional texts in question have been chosen for their display of a complex and substantial dialogue with the writings of the 19th-century political and cultural commentator Thomas Carlyle, a dialogue whose existence is established through documentary evidence and close reading of the texts themselves. By extending the analysis of these texts to their later screen adaptations, Carlyle’s ideas become a background against which changing assumptions about the human condition and changing modes of narrativizing said condition come into relief. The suitability of Carlyle for such a study is demonstrated by an examination of his reception history, which establishes him both as a virtually ubiquitous influence on the Anglophone literature of his day and as a near perfect ideological Other for a 21st-century reader in Western culture, articulating stances at odds with ideological tendencies within contemporary culture and embodied in dominant generic tropes of contemporary narrative. Relevant adaptations are considered as a form of reading Carlyle, one whose elements of debate and struggle with the ideological otherness of the text is explored using Gillian Beer’s concept of ‘arguing with the past’. The importance of a re-consideration of Carlyle’s ideas within the context of 21st-century narratives and cultural assumptions is argued using Paul Feyerabend’s conception of knowledge as ‘an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives’, wherein even failed views must be retained and re-worked to add to the content of the whole.

Quite a mouthful, no? The thesis itself is a curate’s egg performance: good in parts. In one sense, I’m proud of the fact that even in the end I was having difficulty articulating my central research question. The work was decidedly in an expansive humanist tradition: less the collection and interpretation of data than the “free play of thought” over certain narrative and artistic objects. (Yes, that’s right: I’m quoting Matthew fricking Arnold. I didn’t actually quote him in my thesis, however.) The idea of play, indeed, in terms of academic study interests me greatly. I have already spoken of the importance of play to Paul Feyerabend, perhaps my favorite theorist of epistemology (whom I did quote in my thesis). The student of sociology is directed towards the classic essay “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills, which also emphasizes the importance of a play.

In the course of the unstructured intellectual play which led to the production of my thesis, I did not learn any great new insight into the human condition, but I read widely and reflected deeply on many socio-cultural and existential matters of importance to me. In the course of this, I certainly gained many trick and tools of academic writing – even if some of the things I learned are precisely the things many contemporary academics avoid. I hope I became more of a craftsman. I say craftsman because of Mills again, and his first commandment in “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”:

( 1 ) Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

[Note: this edition is the most readily available online at the moment. Other editions of this essay have made the language more gender-neutral. E.g. “Let everyone be his or her own methodologist”.]

This I can at least say: I was my own methodologist, my own theorist. The flip-side of this is that it is hard to contribute to any field if you are your own methodologist.  But yet, it is, for me, hard to engage intellectually in a satisfying way if one is not one’s own methodologist. I still believe that it is better to remain methodologically agnostic and opportunistic for as long as possible, only committing to the epistemological straight-jacket of methodology when external pressures demand it. In the current academic climate they will, in the end (and even in the beginning), demand it, and only too much method (epistemologically and indeed in terms of personal engagement) will be enough (professionally). If The Unspeakable Victorian: Thomas Carlyle, Ideology and Adaptation is under-theorized whilst also being too theoretically ambitious, then take it, if you will, as a sign from an epistemological future, wherein the academic as pure vessel of method has given way to the academic who allows his or her mind to play freely over all worldly phenomena, without discipline. And recall, again, the Carlylean tagline that hangs over this blog: Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)


Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].


Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).



Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

The introduction of Fagin:

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.


Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.


Model Prisons: Thomas Carlyle and Rod Liddle

A call to rehabilitate the writings of Thomas Carlyle came in last week’s Spectator, in an article written by Rod Liddle. Liddle focuses on a little-known late essay of Carlyle’s, “Model Prisons“, from the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). I wrote about this essay in an earlier post. It’s an attack on the “model prison” system which had been introduced in Victorian England, and which aimed at rehabilitation rather than punishment. As such, the regime was not as harsh as the norm. This system was also famously attacked by Dickens in a chapter of David Copperfield, in which Dickens implicitly argued that the system bred hypocrisy among prisoners, who feigned penitence to get the benefits of model prison treatment. This chapter appeared in late 1850, so it is highly probable that Dickens had read Carlyle’s “Model Prisons”, and that it had fed his own anger at the system. Carlyle’s deep influence on Dickens is well known.

So “Model Prisons”. If Dickens liked it, and Liddle likes it, it must be good, right? Well, it has its moments. Carlyle is angry: sometimes tediously so; sometimes spectacularly so. In fact, the piece that Liddle quotes is the same one I quote in the aforementioned earlier post, a rather strikingly bad-tempered description of the physical appearance of the inmates he saw on a visit to the prison:

Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral (for the one always means the other, as you will, with surprise or not, discover if you look) had borne this progeny.

So the prisoners looked like animals; worse than that, they actually looked positively demonic (” imps”). All of them! They were also STUPID – in block capitals. You can’t talk about people like this anymore, even criminals. Or maybe you can – Liddle did, after all, quote this very passage in the context of his piece on why prisons need to be made harsher environments.

It’s tempting to see this in the context of a post-Trump world: all bets are off, and violently authoritarian rhetoric that would have been unthinkable in Western democracies in recent times has become part of the discussion again. In such a context, it’s not incredible that the Latter-Day Pamphlets could finally attain the popularity and esteem that has eluded them throughout their publication history thus far.

Nevertheless, I suggest that Carlyle does not lend himself to an uncomplicatedly authoritarian ideology, even if he espouses it. The reason is similar to the reason given by Zizek for his contention that David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is not a totalitarian film. Perhaps Dune does, Zizek concedes, eroticize power. But in doing so it also “displays the underlying phantasmic support of ‘totalitarianism’ in all its inconsistency” (The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, p. 92). This, I submit, is what Carlyle does for all forms of authoritarian power, and is the reason why he has been historically read with more appreciation roughly leftist figures (from Walt Whitman to Keir Hardie to Mahatma Gandhi). Carlyle is uneasy reading for any respectable authoritarian, and never more so than when he’s vociferously agreeing with everything they hold dear.

The reason is that the quasi-sexual lust for power and control that a critic might contend underlies the politics of the authoritarian is laid embarrassingly bare in Carlyle’s writings. Following the above description of the prisoners, Carlyle enters into a passage whose fantasmic underpinnings are clearer to a 21st-century reader than they were, perhaps, to a 19th-century reader (or Carlyle himself). He’s considering whether the philanthropic notion of guiding erring sinners “by love” is a viable method. Unsurprisingly, he’s not wholly amenable to the idea:

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck, and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them; and now when, by long misconduct and neglect, they had sworn themselves into the Devil’s regiments of the line, and got the seal of Chaos impressed on their visage, it was very doubtful whether even these would be of avail for the unfortunate commander of twelve hundred men!

Carlyle’s imagery of the collar and the whip evoked for his Victorian readers a long-vanished (or, alternatively, spatially distant) world of slavery and conquest. For us, though, such images are more redolent of elaborate erotic scenarios. Thus, Carlyle’s images are not only politically reprehensible, but also embarrassingly intimate. In the guise of espousing a strict authoritarian politics, Carlyle is actually performing a completely unbridled freedom of discourse, laying bare those very aspects of his psyche that are most unacceptable to persons anywhere on the conservative spectrum. That is one of the reasons why Carlyle strikes me as essentially a leftist figure, even if he wouldn’t have consciously wanted to think so. At some level, he was sabotaging all of his explicit politics with the very extreme form in which he irrationally insisted on espousing them, providing the very weapons with which such positions could be easily critiqued and dismissed.


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