Frequent freakouts (1): when somebody has already published what you’ve been working on

A selfie from one of my most recent research days

If you are already writing in an academic context, at whatever level, from fledgling undergraduate to emeritus professor, you will be familiar with a range of unwanted surprises that can shatter your confidence in your work. One particularly vicious little one has something like the magnitude of a neutron bomb going off unexpectedly in your cornflakes. That is the fearful moment when you discover that some horrible snake in the grass, somewhere, has already published a book or article which focuses on the object of your enquiry, from the same perspective, using the same critical tools, and reaching the same conclusions, scuppering a project that you’ve devoted much of your recent effort to. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to help students deal with this particular problem, and while nothing can really prevent the first eye-popping, palm-moistening moment of abject terror, there are a few generally reliable strategies that more or less ensure that, by the end of the day, things don’t seem so bad. In fact, it’s even possible to feel quite good.

As the first in a (possible) occasional series on frequent academic freakouts, I thought that it might be useful to share here a brief note of some of the coping strategies I tend to suggest to students in these cases. It’s all obvious advice, really, but it is just difficult to think of in the moment when this particular kind of shock comes – particularly so on the first occasion, and it’s newcomers to this peculiar torment that I especially have in mind in this post. Feel free to add further strategies in the comments, or to suggest possible future freakouts to address.

What do I do? My entire project is ruined!

First: breathe! Second, reflect. This kind of thing is always a horrible moment for everyone, even people who have been publishing for forty years, and it can feel like the end of the world, but it’s normally resolved quite easily. It’s possible that, as you probably feel, 100% of the observations you’ve made about the object you’re studying, and 100% of the arguments you make, and 100% of the conclusions you draw, have been pre-empted by this previously published article or book. But it’s probably more likely that there’s just a very unsettling overlap between your reading and the reading it advances, and that your initial shock is making you over-rate the extent of the overlap. Try to step back and assess the extent of the damage. Is it really more like 50% overlap? Or 20%?

It’s actually showing that you’re doing OK

Look at it a different way: there seems to be some agreement with a published scholar. Even if it’s 100% overlap, which is extremely unlikely, that’s still a good thing: it shows your reading is plausible, and has presumably been approved by the peer review process. So the question is effectively quite simple. How can you incorporate this earlier piece into your writing? How can you eat it so that it makes you stronger?

Three elementary, and usually reliable, strategies
  1. In most cases, published work that seems to have entirely stolen your thunder can simply be used to bolster your position. So cite it, and let it do part of the work of arguing for you. This will save you space in your word count at the same time that it lends authority to your argument. It might be frightening to delete words that you’ve painstakingly drafted, but it’s normally the case that writers spend a lot of their time worrying about what they can cut to hit their word limit. Now something is helping you do that.
  2. You might quickly see how you can supplement the existing publication, by adding observations about your object of study that it has missed. These might be remarks you weren’t sure you’d have space to make, or that you had thought would make your argument too complicated. But now, since you’ve been handed the gift of being able to summarize a fully worked-out argument in a published piece, you’ve got more space to include them.
  3. Once you’ve exhausted steps 1 and 2, think about how you can criticize the existing publication, and maybe even strongly read against the grain of it. Play devil’s advocate. Your tutor or supervisor has probably already told you there are all kinds of problems with your developing argument, or else a little doubting voice in your head has been telling you that your case just isn’t holding together. Before now you’ve almost certainly been concentrating your efforts on defending your interpretation against real or imagined criticisms. Now you can switch sides: test the possibilities, first perhaps mechanically, then with growing assurance, for showing the published findings to be unsatisfactory, and generate a counter-argument. Ask your tutor for suggestions. Most academics have been through this process so many times themselves that they’re old hands at picking holes in even the most unobjectionable argument. Use their contrariness to your benefit, and develop a contrarian streak in yourself. (Just hide it from your friends…)

If there’s somewhere between a partial and total overlap between that piece and your work, some combination of those strategies will  generally help you out of your hole. If the overlap really is completely total, then you’ve still got at least one more shot. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you have never had to fall silent before just because someone has said something clever. You can think round it, even if you feel they’ve taken the words out of your mouth, and begin to find a new perspective.

You already have an unassailable advantage: you are guaranteed to win

You’ve got the advantage here over that published piece: it is ‘dead’, it’s not speaking any more, and you’ve got time – weeks, months, maybe even years – to keep speaking and to say things it can’t answer. It may have given you a shock today, but that’s the last shock it’s ever going to give you. By the time you’re finished with it, this nasty little monstrosity will be utterly tamed. You still might flinch at the memory of that first grotesque discovery, but you’ll have folded this apparent negation of your work, the extinction of your academic dreams, into your new work as a vital strength of it. Far from stealing your thunder, it’ll turn out in the end that this nasty little beast has actually done you a world of good.

Berlioz’s idea of love

Hector Berlioz c.1850, by Courbet

The journal 19th-Century Music has just published my latest article, ‘Berlioz, love, and Béatrice et Bénédict’, 19th-Century Music 39, no. 1 (2015): 3–24. In this piece I focus, as in much of my recent work, on the conjunction of ideological critique and tonal music. In this case, the emphasis is a range of ideological constructions of love in modernity. Since Berlioz’s opera is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the investigation reaches back to the turn of the seventeenth century, and early modern attitudes to marriage. But since Berlioz’s opera was written after the publication of Madame Bovary, vital elements of the play’s presentations of sex, marriage, and adultery have become transformed. Both Shakespeare’s and Berlioz’s works are subjected to a psychoanalytically informed scrutiny. The music – in whose events and processes Berlioz’s ideology critique takes place – is analysed using an analytical system which (irrespective of its inventor, Heinrich Schenker’s, intentions) shows how ideology works in tonal music. My argument is, in part, that Berlioz’s idea of love, which developed throughout his career to this culminating point at the end of it, is more radical than Shakespeare’s, and still poses a challenge to the new forms of conservatism manifested even in the ‘radical’ sexual politics of the early twenty-first century. The abstract published in the journal follows below, and the article can be read in PDF form here.


Berlioz’s final opera, Béatrice et Bénédict (1860–62) has generally been considered a light-hearted work, revelling in the simple joys of love. Yet his final development of the theme of love, which had preoccupied him at least since the Symphonie fantastique (1830), makes this opéra comique more serious than it might appear to be. Drawing on theories of the human subject by Badiou, Žižek, and Lacan, as well as on the resources of Schenkerian theory, this article invites a new attention on the ideological violence done both by conventional models of love (in this case, on the main characters in the opera) and by the language of tonality. Evaluation of the musical means by which Berlioz psychoanalyzes the characters of a masochist, Héro, and a hysteric, Béatrice, ultimately reveals a surprisingly provocative work of vivid psychological drama.

Self-borrowing and -plagiarism

Zygmunt Bauman

‘Eminent sociologist has recycled 90,000 words of material across a dozen books, claims paper’ – thus the Times Higher Education on 20 August. A newly published paper by two scholars from Cambridge University has demonstrated that Zygmunt Bauman, a prominent sociologist and theorist of modernity, has reused significant quantities of material from his own published works – extracts sometimes many thousands of words long – in the many books he has published since his retirement.

At bottom the concern in this particular case seems to be with originality, the fact that Bauman’s repeated material is not ‘new’. This is a sin against capitalism, one of whose doctrines is that there must always be new things to sell so that the consumer can buy with confidence. Therefore, as the THE reports Bauman’s critics to say, ‘by failing to indicate that substantial parts of his newly authored works are not in fact new, in any conventional sense of the term, but are instead copied from his earlier works, Bauman deceives his readers’. The key question is therefore whether Bauman is properly exercising the responsibility he has to his publishers/distributors and readers/consumers in respect of his intellectual property. The dark suspicion is that he’s plagiarizing himself.

Music, my own field, has a long history of what today’s capitalist legal lexicon calls plagiarism but which used to be called borrowing. The difference in terminology adverts to an important shift between two conceptions of property. The first conception is a (never realized) ideal that ideas, including intellectual or artistic ones, are held in common, or at least could pass between people without lawsuits. This is what happens when a friend lets me borrow a book: even though I’ve sometimes taken years to return them, no friend has (yet) sued me over it. The second conception – the one we have now – is one in which ideas, including intellectual or artistic ones, are privately owned and traded.

To the medieval mind our conception would seem crazy. Melismas and tropes were added to Gregorian chants from the ninth century onwards; in the fourteenth century Machaut was happy to borrow entire motet structures from Philippe de Vitry, who couldn’t have cared less; and even in the Baroque, composers were very happy to reuse entire movements or even pieces. Some of these were self-borrowings: if you feel you’ve heard chunks of Handel’s Messiah in his other works, you’re not wrong. But many were even from other composers. Listeners from the eighteenth century to the present have been free to decide whether they prefer Vivaldi’s op. 3, no. 10

or Bach’s BWV 1065, which reworks it

without the preference having to be troubled by any technical questions of legality. But this last kind of musical borrowing in particular seems at odds with our expectations of the behaviour of creative artists, journalists, or scholars (though, interestingly, not politicians, who are very happy to recycle other people’s ideas, and even graceless catchphrases, as their own). And that is because we have been constructed by our history.

The development of capitalism was accompanied by the emergence of the modern author figure. The notion of copyright, which could be used to police the new situation of ownership, was first established in 1710 by the Statute of Anne, and by 1769 (its first recorded use cited in the OED) people were speaking of intellectual property in the way we do today. It was thus before the reach of collective memory that Western capitalist society began to prize originality, innovation, and authorial ownership for its monetizable value – a value which has very frequently been extracted from the creator by a publisher/distributor’s more or less exploitative terms. But, although we might have forgotten the constructed nature of this ‘perfectly normal’ belief about ownership, it is nevertheless a historical creation, and not a terribly old one at that – we are, after all, still listening to music and watching plays that were written by people who might very possibly think we are mad to think of authorship the way we do.

In today’s academic world, from which this story has emerged, there are signs that individuals and even governments want to take a step back towards greater public ownership of knowledge, specifically through open access publishing. But we are not entering a new utopia of common ownership. The current models for making open-access publishing possible are ultimately designed to ensure continued solid profit for publishers at taxpayers’ expense. And universities (by which I mean their virtually autocratic rulers, the vice chancellors), are actually conflicted on the issue. They want to pursue open-access policies so that they can demonstrate their moral uprightness in making freely available to the public research that the public has paid for. But at the same time universities each claim intellectual property rights in the work of their salaried academics and are resistant to losing those rights, since from time to time they can make a bit of money out of them. (I suppose one should admire the strength of vice chancellors for being able to get out of bed and face the day when their minds are such a terrifying mix of irreconcilable contradictions.)

So what are we to make of Professor Bauman? He has been writing around two books a year since he retired in 1990. Only a grotesquely vain person would expect any reader to keep up with such a prodigious outpouring. Realistically, most of his readers will read only a handful of his books, and those not cover-to-cover (although some academics write beautifully, their books aren’t widely held to be compelling page-turners that readers consume in a hungry literary frenzy). And in that case, each of his books is written for a different audience. Is it really such a problem, therefore, that he repeats passages, even extensive ones?

Delia Smith – culinary anarchist?
Delia Smith – culinary anarchist?

Nobody objects if Delia Smith repeats her hard-boiled egg recipe in three different books, because it’s reasonable of her to expect that most people will only buy one of her books, and yet all her readers want her hard-boiled egg recipe. Why should it be different for academics? Another prolific author, Slavoj Žižek, is famous for his self-borrowing. In a review of two books, Terry Eagleton humorously observed that ‘Whole chunks of Absolute Recoil reappear in Trouble in Paradise, and whole chunks of Trouble in Paradise appear twice over. He has now told the same jokes, recycled the same insights and recounted the same anecdotes dozens of times over. […] No doubt we shall have a chance to read some of this again in his next few books.’

Anyone who reads all forty-seven of Bauman’s post-1990 books and finds, say, eight repetitions of important material, will probably just skip over it on readings two to eight; on the other hand, readers of just one or two books will be in the fortunate position of having important insights repeated, and will not lose out. It is not clear who really loses out here. Personally, I hope that Bauman lives to write another forty-seven books, two thirds of which are three-quarters full of self-borrowings. The joyful reuse of ideas might encourage his readers to do the same – and to spread his wisdom widely for the benefit of society.

The marking boycott and the future of higher education

From 6 November, members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) will begin a marking boycott throughout the UK. This is a cause of huge regret and discomfort to all academic staff, but university management is nationally taking a hard-line stance and lecturers have been left with no other viable course of action. Since our first professional concern is for the education of our students – we, not the senior managers, are the ones who work with and for students every day of our professional lives – it is important that students understand the reasons for the boycott. There are several, but perhaps the top three are these:

  1. University managers are threatening to cut academic pensions by a third, endangering current teaching provision.
  2. Student ‘tuition’ fees are rising at an accelerating rate but management is spending less and less on tuition.
  3. Added to rising tuition fees, this proposed cut threatens to discourage today’s students from becoming tomorrow’s lecturers, which endangers higher education in the future.

1. Universities UK (UUK), the national body which represents university managers, has decided that the lecturers’ pension scheme (USS) needs to cut academic pensions by up to a third (though some special pension provision for university managers will be untouched). The Universities of Oxford and Warwick have broken ranks with UUK and say that the planned reforms are financially unnecessary and will damage university education by making the career unattractive, but so far UUK is refusing to negotiate. As students know all too well, this country is seeing accelerating rises in ‘tuition’ fees because of decisions taken by the government and UUK (in the teeth of opposition from lecturers and the UCU), and we think that cutting the investment in the university teaching profession is no way to preserve world-class education.

2. This boycott is therefore also about the proper use of student fees. Overall pre-1992 university income has risen by a quarter during the last five years. But as student fees rise to create this huge bulge in university income, investment in teaching in older universities is actually falling (post-1992 institutions are investing more than pre-1992 institutions, and their pensions are not under the same threat, which raises uncomfortable questions of comparison). Yet at the same time, there seems to be no shortage of money to spend on ‘re-branding’ our universities, for creating new ‘directorates’ and other higher-level management functions, or for paying 50% bonuses to the pension fund’s investment manager, who earns £900,000 a year. That can’t be the right way to spend the income from the massive and increasing debt that government and university managers are piling onto all our students. The priorities are wrong: the priority should be students and their education, and that means spending their fees to invest in the lecturers who teach them.

3. The proposed changes to pensions offer little incentive to students to go on to a Masters or Doctorate with the idea of becoming lecturers themselves. Some in government are talking openly about lifting the fee cap altogether, and when that happens, who but the very richest could afford to build up a debt of £150,000 or more simply to get a first lecturing job, if they have no hope of a decent pension at the end of it? The consequences of this decision for future generations – for the children of today’s students – could be truly catastrophic.

We are undertaking this marking boycott in the hope that students will appreciate that to protect the education they are currently enjoying, to make it possible to continue offering that education in the future, and to apply pressure on management to invest their ‘tuition’ fees in their actual tuition, we have to fight now. We hope that the boycott will be very short, so that it does not affect students too much. It grieves us enormously that we are forced by management into taking a form of action that hurts the people with whom we have no quarrel, and whose interests – now and in the future – we are fighting for. But we feel that limited disruption now is preferable to the catastrophe that could follow if we do not act for the sake of future generations.

On trigger warnings

Picasso, 'Guernica' (1937). Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Picasso, ‘Guernica’ (1937). Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

I don’t think we properly understand what follows when someone says ‘That offends or upsets me’. If, in conversation with a friend, we are told that we have caused offence, it is natural that we should apologize and try to avoid the topic in future. In a more general sense, most of us learn – to give just one example of our complex moral education – that passing critical comment on a stranger’s physical appearance is likely to cause offence or upset, and so we avoid doing it. And so it might seem instinctively right for groups of students in some US universities today to call for ‘trigger warnings’ – a tip-off that there may be upsetting topics of discussion coming up – before lectures.

Both the New York Times and the Guardian have in the last few days reported on campuses across the US where such requests are not only being made but supported by the administrative apparatus of the university (as distinct from its academic staff). At Oberlin College in Ohio, for instance, a guide has apparently been issued to staff, instructing them to ‘Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.’ The New York Times suggests that this discourse has its ‘ideological roots in feminist thought’, but we should be more precise than that: it is from the discourse of intersectionality. The list of -isms, the talk of ‘privilege’, and the suggestion that a professor might not be able to understand something that a student might tell them about their personal experience, are all strong indicators of intersectional discourse, which privileges the authentic experience of the individual to such a degree that it preaches a maximally sceptical attitude to the possibility that Person B can understand anything about Person A for the simple reason that they are different people. (I’ve discussed this elsewhere on my blog.) But irrespective of its origins, what are we to make of these calls for ‘trigger warnings’? What are the effects of granting or denying them in university courses?

Freud's sofa
Freud’s couch

Naturally, I’m sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t upset people unnecessarily, which is to say wantonly. I don’t want to tap into people’s personal trauma simply in order to make them unhappy. But people are quite happy to upset their friends or one of their patients when some benefit clearly follows. If a friend needs to address a profound problem in a relationship, it often falls to us as friends to articulate something that would be forbidden to most people, and we air the issue because we feel that, if our friend confronts it, it will ultimately help them. Doctors and psychoanalysts, too, address indelicate and upsetting matters in order to find a way through them, to a solution. And this, I suggest, is the model of university education. The world is highly adept at closing its mind to difficult questions, preferring to let the established models run, but university education encourages – in fact requires – critical thinking. Sometimes, as in the pure sciences, the encounter with knowledge is not emotionally challenging; but sometimes, as in the humanities, it can be. The first problem with the ‘trigger warning’ discourse is, then, a misconception of what a university education is about. Irrespective of the discipline, it is about challenging ossified ways of thinking, and opening the mind; and when the kind of knowledge encountered in a discipline touches directly on matters of the human, it is possible – even likely – that that challenge may have an emotional effect on the student. But the same is true when we say to a friend ‘your relationship is over, isn’t it, and you have to come to terms with it’: we know that it will make our friend cry, but that the articulation of that truth will ultimately have been helpful. That future perfect tense, the will have been helpful, is the tense in which education, difficult conversations, surgical operations, psychological treatment, and so on, operate. But instead of thinking of education in this way, I think that people calling for ‘trigger warnings’ are mistaking it for something else. And while I understand why they should do so – our shared ideological investment in the pursuit of enjoyment rather than contemplation makes it difficult to act in any other way – I think that it needs to stop.

The mistake is, I suggest, that education is considered, by the ‘trigger warning’ liberals, to be a form of entertainment, which operates in the present rather than the future perfect tense (it is fun now). We are used to hearing ‘trigger warnings’ before TV shows or in the little notes that film censors helpfully leave for us on DVD cases or the black screen before a film starts in the cinema. And since for most people, most of the time, TV and film are entertainment rather than education, that doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate. If I go to the cinema in order to wind down from a hard day, there are times when I want something that will comfort me, and make me relax in a rather brainless way – so it’s good to know that there won’t be graphic violence on screen (because I don’t like it). Similarly, if an individual has strong views on swearing or sex, it’s reasonable for them to expect that someone will warn them against watching a particular film or show. But we should bear two things in mind. First, art (including forms such as TV and film) is not purely entertainment. In fact I think that entertainment is just an occasional byproduct of art, albeit one that the culture industry – which of course wants to sell us things – has over the last century so exaggerated that even ostensibly intelligent historians of art seem to believe that enjoyment is the main quality of it. And before a liberal tells me to ‘check my privilege’, I should point out that I’m not making an ivory-tower statement here: I think that the normal, profoundly moved general-public response to films such as Schindler’s List suggest that ‘enjoyment’ is rather far from a non-university-educated person’s encounter with art. So that’s the first point: art isn’t principally about entertainment. And the second point is that education isn’t about entertainment at all, any more than surgery or a difficult chat with a friend is. Some people do enjoy it as well, but in a pure, abstract sense: they take pleasure in it on its own terms, simply for being what it is, for its own sake.

An operation in Norway, 1898
An operation in Norway, 1898

If you want to study medicine it’s no good, from a purely pedagogic perspective, to say that you don’t want to watch human bodies being cut open. I certainly wouldn’t want to watch that myself, but that’s why I didn’t study medicine: I know that it would upset me and I avoid it. Now, I could say, along the same lines, that if you want to study humanities it’s no good saying you don’t want to discuss distressing issues. Distressing issues are to the humanities what corpses are to medicine. But I don’t want to directly pursue that line (which, it seems from the newspaper reports, has been one that US professors have, quite understandably, pushed). Though I think there’s an essential validity to it, I’m not in favour of confronting the ‘trigger warning’ liberals and saying, ‘Grow up: don’t be an idiot; grow a spine: a bit of a shock will make you stronger.’

Instead, let’s turn the matter round, and instead of attacking the people calling for ‘trigger warnings’, end by considering the issue I raised at the start of this post: what are the consequences of calling for ‘trigger warnings’? I suggest that ‘trigger warnings’ would be, in fact, a violent influence in the classroom, or in the total discourse of a society. ‘Trigger warnings’ in a university setting would infantilize, for a start, by refusing to treat students as grown-ups. Universities should not be censoring students’ access to knowledge, because it does them a disservice. In this respect, the immaculately intersectional–liberal guidance note at Oberlin College is a spectacularly foolish error. Yes, there are individuals who don’t want to discuss rape, abortion, sodomy, racism, misogyny, violence, suicide, torture, sexual abuse, anti-Semitism, homophobia, clitoridectomy, incest, or paedophilia, let alone the foreign policy of Israel or religious intolerance, and so on. There may even be people who don’t want to look at Picasso’s Guernica because it reminds them of some traumatic experience in a war zone. But there are many others for whom the exposure to rigorous thought on these matters is vital, and in fact the central mission of universities, properly understood. Some issues in the world, including many I’ve just given in my arbitrary selection above, are so difficult to discuss (like the friend’s bad relationship, except scaled up to the size of an entire country, continent, hemisphere) that they are repressed by individuals or banned by a larger national or international community. For many students, the opportunity to discuss these matters in detail is a liberation; for many, a university lecture or seminar can be the first moment in their lives when they gain access to an emancipatory discourse. One person in a class might be upset by a discussion of marital rape, but for the thirty people who have never even thought that it might exist, the discussion makes an appreciable contribution to their formation as individuals. To deny such people that discussion on grounds that it might offend someone is to deny them the hope of freedom. Which is the greater evil here?

Finally, the liberal’s call for a ‘trigger warning’  is not very different from a conservative saying that it’s unseemly or gauche or ill-bred to talk about money troubles or personal anxieties. Both the conservative and the liberal are saying, quite openly, ‘I do not want to listen to what you are saying, even if you are saying it in a measured and sensitive manner, because I simply do not want to hear things that disturb my equanimity. Your suffering is, to me, less important than my comfort.’ Again, if we are talking about film or TV, there may seem to be less of a moral problem here, although if people refused to encounter things like Schindler’s List because they would simply rather not know about it, then I think we do have quite a serious problem: the history of Europe’s slow owning-up to the Holocaust is an important warning of what happens when ‘trigger warnings’ are granted at a societal level. But we’re not talking about film or TV; we’re talking about universities. And to say that we don’t want to discuss clitoridectomy or Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians because it might upset someone is to do something profoundly illiberal. That ‘I don’t want to listen’ is the statement of someone in a position of relative power who refuses to listen to, and therefore to understand, sympathize with, or help, someone in a weaker position. Indeed, the ‘trigger warning’ call is simply the obverse of the familiar intersectional insistence that Person B can’t understand Person A. If we privilege authenticity of experience, and claim that nobody can understand anybody else’s suffering, it is a very small step to say ‘Since I can’t understand your suffering, I don’t want to listen to it either. I’m very happy, thanks very much, not knowing about your suffering: to hear about it would spoil my day, and since I can never understand you, what’s the point of you telling me anyway?’ As so often, liberals need to see the profound conservatism that lies behind their posturing, and the lack of sympathy that is the basis of their ‘caring’. It is selfishness dressed up as sensitivity, and far from being a nice idea, something that could only do good, it is rather revolting, and could potentially do considerable harm.

So stop calling for ‘trigger warnings’. Don’t say that you don’t want  to know. Don’t say that you can never understand because you lack the authentic personal experience. Listen instead. Be upset, if need be. Being upset can be productive. Then use the knowledge you’ve gained, painfully if necessary, to contribute positively in the world.

Brief thoughts on Lily Allen

Lily Allen’s ‘feminist’ video ‘Hard Out Here’ is old news, a couple of months old, but I’m behind the times and I’ve just encountered it, and its critical responses, today. Its flaws have already been amply pointed out, with particular attention paid to the video’s exploitative attitude towards black women, who are merely sexual objects here. But so far I haven’t seen anyone critiquing the music.

I don’t think that the video, shown below, is remotely critical of the sexist ideological universe it is ostensibly critiquing. The lyrics do, it’s true, give us a sarcastic view of pop videos and popular cultural attitudes to women, but the video still provides the ideologically necessary titillation. The music contributes powerfully to this. In form (the way verse and chorus alternate conventionally) and content (the shape of the melody and the song’s harmonic features) it is extremely simple and digestible: the music is bright, perky, pleasant, unchallenging, and so readily accessible that its essential musical point can be grasped by many millions of people within a few seconds (the YouTube video has had nearly 16 million views to date).

This simplicity of form and content, the catchiness of pop music, its immediacy and appeal, is what makes it the favoured commodity form for music in advanced capitalism. Really Lily Allen’s song is just like everything else in this regard. Pop music seems to offer the instant gratification that we are taught that we desire from music, without being ultimately satisfying (because if it satisfied us, we’d stop consuming it). For much of the time, when songs have any evident content, it is, as a first-year student of mine noted in a presentation last term, some more or less bland statement about love, money, sex, or drugs. These bland statements tend to meander around a narrow space bounded by a conservative ideological frame. We should all pursue the One; we should want money but not too much, because that makes us nasty, shallow people, when instead we should be pursuing the One; we can be terribly liberal about sex, and even allow it between persons of any age or race or sex, because we’re so liberal, but ultimately the One is the person we should focus our sexual interest on; and drugs are our permitted transgression, the thing that gives us edge, but without posing a real challenge to convention. The simple appeal of the music that presents this network of messages serves the purpose of sugaring the ideological pill: it’s a positive pleasure to internalize these ideological messages.

Back, finally, to the specifics of Lily Allen’s song, which presents itself as being antagonistic to modern forms of pop-culture sexism. Overall, the interaction of music and video does little more than provide the ideologically normal objectification of women with a nice reassurance that it’s ironic, so we can feel good about ourselves while nothing at all is changed. The catchy nature of the tune absolutely contributes to this: it says ‘Look, it’s really easy and pleasurable to be a feminist: not only will the experience be perky and pleasurable, but you don’t even have to change the materials you consume – you can still look at close-ups of women’s backsides being sprayed with champagne as they mock-fellate a bottle, because it’s all a joke. If it gives you a hardon, it’s OK: it’s a feminist hardon!’. It’s as cynical as a major corporation saying that the purchase of their goods is somehow a way of giving to charity, a way of making us feel good about preserving the status quo. Yet I suspect you’re unlikely to read a critique of ‘Hard Out Here’, or Jessie J’s ‘Do It Like a Dude’, or any other ‘critical’ pop that targets the musical materials in the same way, because there is an unquestioned assumption that because pop appeals to millions, it must be ‘democratic’. I think instead we need to return to the old Marxist position, nicely developed by Adorno, that what we’re mistaking for democratic reach is the poisonous and anti-progressive narcotic effect of a musical opiate for the masses.

The authenticity condition

Among that group of people on the liberal left who present themselves as policers of privilege, or as ‘intersectional’ ‘allies’ and so on, there is a prevalent belief that guides pretty much all else, but which should be rejected. It is the belief that unless A is a person of type X, A cannot understand X. Only a transexual/poor person/etc. can understand the experience of transexuals/poor people/etc. Let us call it the ‘authenticity condition’, the condition that the only person qualified to speak on X is someone with a direct personal (i.e. ‘authentic’) experience of X. Someone raised this point elsewhere on my blog, in response to a post on transsexualism, and Paul Bernal makes it in an otherwise fairly unobjectionable post on the often invisible privilege that enables some people to get on in life at the expense of others.

A focus on ‘privilege’ (which I put in scare quotes because the judgement of what counts as privilege in the context of the kind of liberalism I’m talking about is often quite tendentious) often goes hand in hand with this insistence on the authenticity condition, and the latter tends to devalue any of the insights of the former.

It should be immediately obvious that the authenticity condition is false. At root, it says nothing more than that person A can have no direct and unmediated experience of the thoughts or feelings of person B. Quite so: only the individual has unmediated access to those thoughts and feelings. (It is so banal that it is hardly worth saying.) But the individual themselves can mediate those thoughts and feelings. B can say to A ‘I feel happy because someone gave me a book’, and as long as A has had some experience of happiness by themselves, and knows what a book is, A can grasp a mediated sense of what B is feeling. Furthermore, once A knows that B is made happy by being given books, it’s possible for A to make interpretations of B’s feelings even without B directly reporting them, or to act in such a way as to make B happy even without B saying how to do it. So, for instance, if A sees B on another occasion reading a book, A might very well think that B is happy, because they have a book; if A sees B unhappy, they can hand over a book in the expectation that it might lead to an increase in happiness. B can correct this assumption of a relationship between books and happiness turns out to be wrong (the book might be by Dan Brown, for instance), but it’s a fair assumption to make on the basis of A’s previous knowledge.

Sometimes this knowledge which is gained before the event of an interpretation is really quite considerable. Consider the extensive and complex knowledge that a GP has of thousands of kinds of ailment. If B walks into Doctor A’s consulting room reporting a particular sort of discomfort, Doctor A has no direct and unmediated access to what B is reporting, but on the basis of what they do know about medicine, Doctor A can diagnose an illness and prescribe a treatment. The doctor doesn’t need to be able to directly feel what B feels, because B can report it. Sometimes, a patient might not be able to fully articulate the quality of a feeling they are experiencing, but a doctor can extrapolate from their knowledge to be able to accurately determine what the patient is suffering from, even though the patient doesn’t realize that the twinge two inches to the left is more significant than the more assertive one to the right.

According to the authenticity condition, the doctor would have to say ‘Since I cannot directly experience your thoughts and feelings, I’ll have to ask you to diagnose and treat yourself. It would be improper of me to do otherwise, because I would be presuming knowledge of your situation which I can’t experience at first hand. I would be impugning your experience and declaring that my own is superior to yours. In this context the only proper thing for me to do is, therefore, to shut up’.

Of course the liberal defenders of the authenticity condition would make no such demand of a doctor. The doctor has knowledge, access to what is currently understood to be true about medicine, and it is right for that knowledge to be applied, however imperfectly, to the treatment of patients. In the case of doctors, and pretty much nothing else, the majority of people are still happy to subscribe to the notion that there is Truth, an explanation for things which lies outside of ordinary everyday experience, and which has enormously useful explanatory power for our everyday lives. But the essential condition of liberalism, and particularly of the authenticity condition, is the assertion that there is no truth: there are only particular individual experiences, which only individuals can articulate.

Pretending to make do without truth

The particular historical cause for the emergence of this view was the experience of the twentieth century in the West, in which the kinds of Truth proclaimed by the Nazis, Soviets, and Americans (fascism, socialism-in-one-country, and capitalism) were seen to cause unparalleled human suffering. Alongside the rejection of fascism and socialism, the liberal consensus made an unconscious pact to reject the notion of Truth too, except in certain special cases: medicine is one admissible form of truth, and science more generally is given this credence too. Until recently, it was also fairly common for governments to be granted the privileged status of guardians of Truth, which they protected by means of ‘national security’ protocols and secret services, but since leaks about the unjustifiable practices of the security services have appeared, governments and intelligence agencies have lost their status as guardians.

We should not be misled by the abuses of those who have access to different forms of truth into thinking that Truth itself should be rejected. Even a hundred Harold Shipmans would not make it reasonable to suppose that medicine itself is untrustworthy and murderous. Nor should we be misled into thinking that in rejecting fascism and socialism we got rid of all Truth claims from global politics. One Truth got left behind, which claims to be the best explanation for how a peaceful, democratic, healthy, and prosperous civilization can run. It has increasingly many critics, but this Truth, which we call capitalism, is still given fundamental credence.

Truth is opposed to the authenticity condition, because Truth is by definition an understanding which has the potential to be universally applied. Medicine claims to explain universally what is wrong with sick humans. Alternative forms of medicine contest those claims to truth, but they make their own truth claims. Patients judge between the competing claims. That is how truth works. Crucially, the truth claims of the competing medicines are accepted as such: people know that they are weighing claims to universal truth, not just listening to individual opinions. A doctor doesn’t claim that antibiotics will help in accordance with the authenticity condition, but in accordance with a relationship to Truth.

As individual humans, we don’t have unmediated access to the experience of others. We find it very easy, however, to extrapolate from our own experience, by means of a fairly elementary logic. We suppose that our own experience is true to itself, and we assume the potential of universalizing that experience so that, with adjustments, we can do our very best to understand the thoughts and feelings of the people around us. Call it sympathy or empathy, call it Mitsein if you want to be Heideggerian about it. In each case, it is an interaction motivated by a commitment to Truth, not the authenticity condition. To insist that only X can speak of X is to deny the possibility of human sympathy and interaction, of one person attempting to work out, on the basis first of reflecting on their own subjective experience, and second listening to or observing another person, what another subject is feeling. To insist on the authenticity condition is to say that unless A experiences B’s sadness, A has no idea what it means to say that B is sad, or cannot imagine how B feels. It’s ludicrous. It’s inhuman. It should be rejected.

Putting truth back

Non-transexuals can gain a mediated understanding of the experience of transexuals if they listen to the accounts of transexuals. They can only get this understanding through mediation, but that’s not because they’re non-transexuals. It’s because nobody can gain unmediated access to the experience of another person. Transexual A can only understand the position of Transexual B through mediation too. They might need less of an explanation of the basic setup than Non-Transexual C, but we are not talking here about a difference in quality but only in quantity of knowledge.  In principle, Non-Transexual C can become quite as knowledgeable about the transexual experience in general as any transexual – or more so. Similarly, a doctor can understand the experience of lung cancer superbly well even without having lung cancer. A priest can understand the feelings of a person preparing for death even without being in the last moments of life themself. A historian can understand the subject position of people long dead. And so on. The Truth being appealed to here is that human experience is universal, that the only identity that counts is ‘being human’, and that every other kind of identity, however much it is pressed onto one culturally, is plastic, and can be reshaped or rejected.

So, finally, the authenticity condition must be rejected because, far from representing a view of the world that entirely denies the possibility of Truth, it actually supports the capitalist Truth. One of the principal strengths of late capitalism is the way that it has externalized human nature, in the sense that it makes us believe that the things that ‘make us who we are’ – things like musical taste, clothing, hairstyle, the kind of holidays we take or books we read, etc. – are ‘out there’, not within us, and specifically ‘out there’ in a market situation, so that we can buy a huge number of objects that help us to make sense of ourselves as individuals. It is even fair to say that our experience of ourselves is, thanks to late capitalism, essentially mediated too, by external commodities. In order to feed its circulation, capital likes us to generate ever-proliferating lists of identities, all of which need to be mediated by commodity purchase, none of which can be allowed to be universalized. Often, in the areas of human experience that liberals are particularly keen to police, these identities come under the capacious umbrella of the term ‘minority’. This is a non-analytic term, which says nothing about the experience or power of the people within it. The Queen is in a minority of one among 70 million, but she is hardly a ‘minority’ in the sense that people habitually use the term. But the non-analytic term ‘minorities’ has replaced useful analytic ones like ‘working class’, with the effect that the policing of language to do with ‘minorities’ has overtaken the focus on much more significant problems to do with class (an issue on which Mark Fisher, among others, has written extremely persuasively recently). Analytic terms like ‘working class’ of course are used to explain human experience in relation to a form of Truth (in this case an anti-capitalist one), but the authenticity condition denies the possibility that anyone who is not working-class (or, like Russell Brand, has lost the authenticity of their class by earning lots of money) can speak about the subjective experience of the working classes – and so it kills the possibility of an emancipatory politics.

Why do people bother with something that is not only foolish but also destructive to the progressive cause? Well, the authenticity condition certainly provides a comfort blanket for people who want to feel uniquely important, and who feel that their views must be heard because they are the only people with a right to speak. But it is at bottom a selfish condition, a condition which professes to ignore the possibility that human beings can talk to one another and see the world from another person’s perspective. It is fundamentally opposed to all forms of solicitude and love. It is a Thatcherite’s wet dream. Those who wish to defend this oppressive mode of thought should face up to the consequences of their intellectual commitment.