First, a joke from medieval Russia under the Tatar occupation.
A Tatar horseman encounters, on a lonely country road, a peasant with his young wife. The Tatar warrior not only wants to have sex with her, but – to add insult to injury, and to humiliate the peasant even further – he orders him to hold his (the Tatar’s) balls gently in his hands, so that they will not get too dirty while he copulates with the wife on the dusty road. After the Tatar has finished with the sexual encounter and ridden away, the peasant starts to chuckle with pleasure; asked by his wife what is so funny about her being raped in front of her husband, he answers: ‘Don’t you get it, my love? I duped him – I didn’t really hold his balls, they’re full of dust and dirt!’
I don’t know whether this is a real joke or whether Žižek made it up himself (this version is taken from The Plague of Fantasies) but it tells you all you need to know about the way that senior academics understand the world. ‘We won’t take steps to stop you raping us or anyone we care about, and we’ll allow ourselves a pathetic satisfaction in knowing that we’ve muddied your testicles, thus robbing you of the tiniest amount of pleasure.’ That, unfortunately, is the state of the power struggle between academics and government.
Why do I say this? Well, last Sunday the Observer reported that the AHRC, the research council that funds research into the arts and humanities, has committed itself in its 2011–15 ‘Delivery Plan’ (let’s pass over the hideousness of that idea) to funding streams of research that will feed into and, since it means nothing in itself, provide some kind of intellectual fig-leaf for the government’s ‘Big Society’ initiative – the code-name for ‘Operation Immiseration of the General Populace for the Benefit of the Super-Rich on the Whim of a Maniacal Tory Government’. Incidentally, I think it’s wrong even to call the coalition ‘Tory-led’: the Lib Dems are all functionally Tory now, in the same way that every member of the air force that has private doubts about whether it is right to bomb a target is still functionally a positive, active force in the attack. It’s what you do in public, not how you think in private, that makes you who you are. So we simply have a Tory government. That’s why it hurts so much just getting out of bed.
A petition opposing the AHRC’s latest evidence of support of this government agenda has been set up here (please do sign it) and in the first couple of days amassed over 2,000 signatures. Since it’s often difficult to get even one academic to do anything in two days, the fact that 2,000 of them have done something so naughty so quickly suggests that something must be up. The AHRC’s immediate defence against the Observer article was petulant and mildly illiterate (they claim to ‘refute’ claims that they actually only repudiate or deny: and yes, this parenthesis is of course an example of me muddying the AHRC’s testicles). But the AHRC’s Chief Executive Rick Rylance has also responded, in ‘Research Fortnight’, to the petition itself, and the more nuanced response of some signatories.
When asked about specific paragraphs in the delivery plan such as 2.4.4, which says: ‘Connected communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the “Big Society” in the following areas: […]’, Rylance responded by saying:
‘This paragraph does not say that the Big Society is a research priority. It simply says these are the ways in which Connected Communities research could contribute to the group of issues clustered there and under this label.’
Just what in the words ‘contribute to the government’s initiatives’ does Rylance, a professor of English, not understand? And here’s the ball-dirtying payoff:
‘Politicians have no say in what specific research is funded which will be decided by peer review on the basis of the proposals we receive.’
On the most generous interpretation we could say that the AHRC genuinely believes that the academy is not as bound to the government agenda as all that: we can still freely choose which specific proposals to fund. Back to bomber command: ‘Yes, yes, we appreciate your concerns about bombing civilians of course, but you do have freedom. We don’t want to control everything: the exact form of your actions is of course something you can decide autonomously. You can, for instance, choose to aim your bomb at the target’s spare bedroom rather than the bed she’s sleeping in. Now how’s that?’
This failure to understand the most straightforward consequences of the actions they take, and delight in feeling that some small element of power has been vouchsafed in response is not a new pathology in academia. It was the same in the 1980s, when Thatcher’s government managed to remove academic tenure. This academic privilege, still enjoyed in the US, was a guarantee that, no matter how much you might piss off the government or your own institution when your academic research takes you into areas that don’t toe the party line, you would not lose your job. Academics now have no such protection and it’s no surprise that as a class of people they’re either so cravenly keen to please their political masters that they actively pursue intellectual vacuities like the ‘Big Society’ or else are so beaten down by the system that – however intelligently they appreciate the horrible course they have embarked on, and however eloquently they might express their displeasure in department board meetings, in the corridor, or by email with colleagues – they just roll over. Speak to an academic who was in the profession at the time of the loss of tenure and you’re fairly likely to be told that ‘it could have been much worse; we got a much better deal than we could have had’. Academics under the thumb of government seem willing to cling to the very merest ‘victory’.
This is a moment where Jesus’s wisecrack ‘Truly they have their reward’ hits an unexpected target. It’s just the same effect as when political satire grants a catharsis that enables the continued functioning of the status quo: laughing along with the comedian who explains in comic fashion the latest atrocity of the government, we think ‘I’m glad other people feel the same way as I do. It validates me politically, and it warms the cockles of my heart. Now I’ll just put up with the crap until I can’t bear it any more, at which point I’ll watch some satire again and everything will be OK.’
I’ve no idea whether Rick Rylance is a craven initiate or just someone who thinks it’s hilarious to muddy a rapist’s testicles. But I would certainly have no confidence in his readings of literature if he is as blind to the importance of subtext as his response to the current furore over the wording of the AHRC’s Delivery Plan suggests. If it really is such a small matter that the AHRC sprinkles mentions of the Big Society throughout its delivery plan, then they can be removed when it’s so evident that they scandalize so many academics. But those scattered sprinklings indicate – as any intelligent reader of subtext would know – a more deep-seated commitment to the policies of the government. And since the notion of the Big Society is itself nothing but an empty, two-word sugar coating for the dismantling of the social-democratic welfare provision built up since the downfall of fascism in Europe, this is a very grave matter indeed.