Centre for What?

Frances Stonor Saunders makes a pointed comment in the Observer.

Last week came an announcement from the University of London’s Birkbeck College that it intends to establish a centre for public intellectuals…But what exactly is a public intellectual? Unfortunately, Birkbeck doesn’t tell us. There’s some woolly stuff about the centre putting itself at the ‘forefront of current intellectual debate’, about making ‘public intervention on issues of current importance’. The centre’s inaugural project will be a series of lectures honouring the life and work of Jacques Derrida. A centre for public intellectuals needs a public to address. By focusing on Derrida, whose work took impenetrability to dizzying heights, Birkbeck is clearly signalling that by ‘public’ it means elitism on a platform. It’s hard to see how this arrangement can bring clarity to ‘issues of current importance’.

Elitism on a platform – I like that. Phenomena like the cultish atmosphere around Derrida, the equation of Derrida-skepticism with ‘an attack on complex thought,’ the idea that the first thing a group of public intellectuals ought to do is get together to heap even more flattery on the already well-flattered Derrida – those are the kind of thing that I think deserve the label ‘elitist.’ It’s the impenetrability thing. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is the point, is exactly why the fans are so ardent, so cultish, so keen to equate ‘complex thought’ with what Derrida did and what he did with complex thought. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is loved, admired, sought-after, imitated. Partly (I surmise) because literature has long been thought of as a soft option at best, as a girly subject, as lacking in rigour and hard work. It’s not rocket science, it’s not brain surgery, it’s not chemical engineering or physics or even history or philosophy – it’s just old reading novels and poetry, and who can’t do that? But now, yo, there’s ‘theory,’ which is very very very difficult and demanding and arduous, takes years, has a whole elaborate technical vocabulary, not just any fool can do it, only specialists, yup uh huh. None of your chatter about Shelley here. God no – who the hell wants to read Shelley?! Nasty arty-farty bastard. No. The whole point is to read stuff that only people with several degrees in ‘theory’ can read without wanting to drop the book into a shredder. In other words, Keep Out. It’s like a No Trespassing sign stuck on the entire subject; and that’s the real elitism. Not liking Byron more than Keats, or Keats more than Byron, or either of them more than a Pepsi song. No, it’s arranging things so that outsiders will be repelled and turn away and go back to their proley little lives. It’s being pretty much the opposite of public intellectuals.

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