The Victorian Sage

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

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.


The University as the Birth-place of the Leader

DCU’s commitment to the vision of the citizen as entrepreneur was elucidated in my last post. Trinity College Dublin is a different sort of university. Whereas DCU is young, TCD is by far Ireland’s oldest, a survivor from the days of English colonialism and the Ivory Tower – for much of its existence, most Irish were excluded from TCD by virtue of their Catholicism. I am happy to confirm that that is no longer the case.

But TCD remains the aura of old-world respectability and in the mission statement featured at the beginning of their strategic plan the ghost of “liberal education” lingers:

We provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential.

The mission is then divided into three strands. The key ideological content words here are: diverse, academic excellence, transformative, interdisciplinary, local innovation, global challenges, pluralistic, just, sustainable. Some of these key words retain the almost archaic flavour of the liberal university (“just”, most notably). None allies TCD with economic ideals in any clear way. Several gesture towards the most topical contemporary political debates: diverse and pluralistic, in particular.

The notion of diversity is certainly a pregnant one for the contemporary university. It has its cultural element, but also its economic element, particularly in terms of what TCD calls “geographical diversity”. The financial rewards of foreign students are considerable.

A1.2 Internationalization

Geographical diversity in our student community is critical in developing an educational milieu which fosters cross-cultural understanding and prepares all students for a life of global citizenship. It allows for a coming-together of different educational, cultural and personal perspectives. It is also a key factor in introducing students to a global dialogue on their areas of academic study, and in building a global Trinity community by creating lifelong, personal, academic, and professional relationships across the world. We will ensure that an integrated internationalized student community re-emerges as a strong feature of the Trinity experience.

But my question for these posts on Irish universities is: how is the student figured in these documents? In DCU, we had the student as entrepreneur. In TCD, the individual identity of the student is mostly dealt with in the subsection “Renew the Trinity Education”. Here the student is figured as a global citizen is invoked. Elsewhere, this figure is again mentioned, and Erasmus is cited as a philosophical source for the concept. This is unusual, to have a direct quote from a general source like this in a strategic plan, but the choice of Erasmus is clearly in itself strategic, assuring the reader that notwithstanding the appearance of such contemporary keywords as global citizen, TCD’s roots remain in the European humanist tradition.  Critical thinking and independence of mind are also cited.

Students are referred to as “leaders in intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic life”, and the figure of the leader is ultimately probably the central one in TCD’s document. As well as the aforementioned fields, students of TCD are also destined to be  “ethical leaders in the fields of politics, science, culture, business and industry, healthcare and law”. So while DCU tends to evoke the figure of the entrepreneur, TCD is more interested in the leader. While the entrepreneur is defined by his relationship to the economy, the leader is defined by his relationship with others. But it is not a relationship of equals; instead, the TCD students is expected to establish a relationship of power and superiority with regard to his/her fellow citizens, in all fields.

TCD’s confidence arises, I suppose, from the fact that it is both Ireland’s longest-established university and, according to most metrics, its most important and influential. Why not, then, openly acknowledge that its students are more likely to go on to be persons of importance than graduates of other institutions? TCD students are steeped in an ideology of leadership when they enter its hallowed halls. Or so the strategic plan would seem to indicate. A greater task would be examining if and how this is brought into practice on the campus itself.

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.

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