8th November

The Value in Academic Writing

Some writers' names become associated with whole ways of knowing. Their designation makes the conversion from an individual noun to a system of thought, even if that system is not always very systematic. "This is why," writes Clifford Geertz, "we tend to discard their first names after a while and adjectvise their last ones" - Foucauldian, Freudian, Marxist, Kleinian and so on. Really big names are transmuted to eponyms. They become what Barthes referred to as 'author priests'. By contrast the rest of us academic artisans are little more than clerks or at best apostles. The implication is that academic authors fall into either the rare breed of intellectual giants or mere typists transcribing the obscure trivialities of life and translating them into terms that are already set.

The cumulative effect is that attempts to write seem doomed or compromised to merely adding a few footnotes when compared to the high priests of theory. In Britain, academics are judged on a geographical scale of acclaim: to write 'world class' publications is the ultimate aspiration and the very least an academic should possess is a 'national profile'. The audits, whether the Research Assessment Exercise or the Research Excellence Framework, aim to rank departments and distribute funds... excellently.

The consequences have been profoundly damaging both to thought and academic literature. Timidity, conservatism and hyper-specialisation reign. It comes through in the way academics speak


of their expertise - 'I couldn't form an opinion because it is outside my area.' That subject area might be a mile deep as Paul Gilroy has commented, but it is only an inch wide. We have become inured to this absurd and obscene system that measures and ranks intellectual value in a crass equivalent of a 'hit parade' of books and journal articles. Could any scholar go along her/his bookshelves and rank numerically the works of great philosophers and visionary thinkers in this way? What grade would Gramsci's Prison Notebooks receive as compared to Arendt's Life of the Mind? Who would be number one? It would be incongruous to even try and the effort would cheapen us intellectually as this pernicious system has the whole UK university sector. Indeed, the victories produced through the Research Assessment Exercise are as hollow as the defeats.

Regardless of the injunction to assess and measure, the process of auditing intellectual value is always partisan and fated to guesswork. It is like trying to weigh handfuls of water against each other as the liquid slips through the fingers. Can we even know the value of our own work? I think not and moreover it is a mistake to even try to measure it. There are rare moments when that elusive worth is revealed. It is certainly not when the deliberations of the research assessment panels are announced.

A few years ago I gave a lecture in Dublin. I had finished a new book and embarked on a series of talks to tell people about it in the hope that it might stand an


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20 November