It is said that you are what you consume. Judging my recent diet – both nutritional and academic – I would estimate my person is roughly half Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate Caramel Wafer, half poststructuralist academic waffle. Such a state of affairs, I wilfully admit, is not a healthy one, and it’s one I’m doing my darnedest to remedy. In this spirit, I have embraced the unknown, ambitiously filling up my fridge with various green foodstuffs, ranging from broccoli and green beans to mint-flavoured Aero chocolate. Baby steps, my friends.
On the other front, I’m torn. Like any upstanding proto-intellectual, one of my favourite hobbies is gaslighting others through quoting obscure early 20th century French philosophers. Yet, it is quickly becoming apparent that I’ve been outflanked: the gaslighter has become the gaslightee. The onslaught of page upon page upon page of absolute nonsense is breaching my proverbial Torres Vedras – and the stamina necessary to continue is quickly turning all my joy sour.
That academia makes me feel like this matters. Ideas, the concepts that allow us to make sense of reality, should be exciting. They should explain why we’re here, what things mean and, sometimes, even compel us to act. At their best, ideas are immensely dynamic and creative forces – battering rams to the citadels of personal obstinacy and narrow-minded identity. They can be a source of personal liberation, a means to expand one’s perspective beyond the self.
So, when I’m reading ‘post-normative, queer approaches to (post)-reflexive interpretations to cat-rearing in the mid-1320s’, there’s this overwhelming feeling, that somewhere, something has gone deeply wrong. And that at some point in our recent past, doing something self-evidently deeply unnatural has become an expectation for the young and interested.
I’m not that certain why it has come to this – and I can attest that there’s many reasonable half-explanations. Maybe, the problem is with us – the social media consumers par excellence, whose attention-span can’t bare a three-minute YouTube video, let alone anything that may involve, God forbid, thinking. Maybe, it’s the fault of the polo-necked French philosopher, whose innovative approach to knowing, involves, as far as I can work out, smoking as much as possible while repeating the phrase ‘it is all discourse’ in a sexy French accent. Alternatively, maybe we’re stuck – and, we stand at the end of history, drowning in meaning and different perspectives, unsure of truth and our relative bearings. All rather plausible.
But I think it’s far more simple than this. Ideas originate from places, and the places that ideas currently originate from are the University. And so, to generate an idea, you have to go through years and years of thinking and reading. And when you do so, you change. You separate yourself from the world, the real world, and enter the realm of ideas.
Things slowly become concepts first, and reality second – and so are warped into a weird half-existence. In other words – the very tools for understanding rip you away from the world you’re trying to understand.
And so, it becomes acceptable to write a book or an article with only the most tangential relationship to existence. You know the sort: articles with titles like ‘de-reflexive hermeneutics of certainty applied to changes in Visigothic law codes in the 15th Century’ or ‘a meta-critique of hegemonic feminist interpretations of the Aquitannian style of land management’. You wonder, does any of this actually matter?
And if this was affecting only the academic, it might not be a problem. But it doesn’t. Academia portends to a monopoly on truth, implicitly rejecting the authority of those without citation.
The idea of the ‘expert’, or those qualified to speak, cordons off thinking to those that aren’t ‘experts’. ‘Experts’ have a certain license to assert, to tell us what’s right through appeal to their authority of a title, or a number of citations.
And so, the abstract gains at the expense of reality. The result is that people get away with saying nothing – placing form before content – as a means to eke away at some increasingly absurd supposed truth. Layer upon layer of refined nuance becomes impenetrable, and increasingly meaningless. Edging towards the outer orbits of what can be known through language alone, modern academia is becoming its own reductio ad absurdum.