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October 2007

Tenured Radicals

Readers who enjoyed Roger Kimball’s essay about the pretensions of Michel Foucault and his admirers may also be entertained by his musings, from 1990, on embittered Marxist, Terry Eagleton. Here’s a taste.

“There have always been elements of ironic comedy about the spectacle of Marxist academics fervently proclaiming their revolutionary message while safely ensconced in Western institutions of higher education. As the years have passed and another generation of young radicals has settled into middle age, tenure, and pension calculations, one might have hoped that these freethinkers would have had manners enough to mute their demands for the destruction of the middle class, the bourgeoisie, ‘the repressive state apparatus of late capitalism,’ etc. After all, blue jeans or no blue jeans, what these middle-class beneficiaries of capitalism have unwittingly been clamouring for is nothing less than their own destruction. But no, they continue nattering on about ‘the contradictions of capitalism,’ obviously having missed the vastly more palpable contradiction inherent in their own position as tenured radicals…

Professor Eagleton [is] ... adamant about declaring his working-class sympathies: In a typical gesture, he dedicated his book on the Brontës, Myths of Power (1975; second edition 1988), to ‘Dominic and Daniel and the working-class movement of West Yorkshire.’ What the working-class movement of West Yorkshire (or anywhere else, for that matter) would have to say about a book that emphasizes the ‘notion of categorial structures as key mediations between literary form, textual ideology and social relations’ is amusing to contemplate…” 

Elsewhere, Kimball notes,

“In the end, Professor Eagleton is in the uncomfortable position of being a literary critic who doesn’t care much for literature except in so far as it is an instrument for social change. He begins Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)… with the requisite paean to Marx’s general brilliance and profound grasp of culture: Marx wrote poetry, ‘his acquaintance with literature… was staggering in scope,’ and so on. It all might have come from the Soviet Encyclopaedia circa 1930. But Professor Eagleton goes on immediately to note that one shouldn’t expect a full-fledged theory of art from Marxism because, after all, ‘Marx and Engels had rather more important tasks on their hands than the formulation of a complete aesthetic theory.’”

Like many of his peers, Eagleton uses academic theorising as an improbable and rickety vehicle for the propagation of his own political whims and prejudices. But I’ve yet to see compelling evidence that the shoehorning of outmoded Marxist claptrap or its postmodern derivatives into literary and aesthetic ponderings illuminates much that is useful or profound - beyond, that is, the theorist’s own capacity for self-absorbed misapprehension. Norman Geras, who shares some of Eagleton’s political sympathies, recently noted a similar “unwarranted intrusion of the author’s politics.” Such intrusion is hardly unknown in the humanities and it is, I think, a signature of a decline into disrepute, irrelevance and farce.

It seems odd to me that there should be so much to write about the relationships, or alleged relationships, between literature and Marxism, or literary criticism and Marxism, or art and Marxism. I marvel at how so many careers can be strung out elaborating on this rather limited theme in various, often bizarre, formulations. Yet there are countless volumes, essays and papers devoted to this supposedly profound convergence and its supposed relevance today. And an inordinate number of these titles are found on first year reading lists. The function of such material doesn’t appear to be to say anything new or particularly insightful, but rather to repeat a number of loaded assertions and recycle references to other, equally loaded, tomes, possibly to convince the authors of the validity of their own youthful preoccupations. In this respect, it’s interesting to note how ageing Marxists are so often found in academia, where fixations of this kind can persist largely unmolested.

Kimball is the author of Tenured Radicals, Revised: How Politics has Corrupted our Higher Education. More of Professor Eagleton’s political wisdom here and here.

Related. And. Also. Plus.

Friday Ephemera

Eggs with decorative holes. Made with a very small electric drill. (H/T, Coudal.) // One man, one parachute, one very large catapult. (H/T, The Thin Man.) // Shaft soundtrack rehearsal. // Oh. Dear. Lord. // Cigarettes and magic. // Green movement demands greatest sacrifice yet. “Even among very green households the family cloth creates controversy.” // George Monbiot bemoans jet skis and diamond saucepans; prays for recession in the interests of equality. // Chinese cave dwelling. “It’s a matter of tradition and sheer common sense.” (H/T, Chastity Darling.) // Population density as art. London, Cairo, Mexico City. People per square kilometre. // Good news, everyone. Che Guevara still dead. // Fabian Tassano on Terry Eagleton. // Mick Hartley on Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth and the staggering bollocks written about it. “An artwork that provokes us to question the very foundations of our ways of thought.” Or maybe not. // Via 1+1=3, old signs exposed. // An abundance of nudity. // How to iron a shirt. // Via Coudal, how to cook lasagne in a dishwasher. // “Few critters make for better eating than feral hog.” (H/T, Maggie’s Farm.) // The social lives of baboons. “Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behaviour of women in so many 19th-century novels.” // Synthetic genomics. “The successful completion of this research will allow us to realize the ultimate goal of creating a synthetic organism.” // Custom creature taxidermy. Winged kitten, vampire squirrel, two-headed rat. // Greyhounds doped with cocaine. (H/T, Metrolander.) // Cross-dressing cartoon rabbit. (H/T, Savage Popcorn.) // Bloody Cartoons. // Artist has third ear grafted on forearm. “He hopes to have a microphone implanted to allow others to listen to what his extra ear picks up.” (H/T, Dr Westerhaus.) // This is Tengu! // And, via The Thin Man, this is Vera.


Further to yesterday’s post on the excellent Spectator debate, which I urge you to download, a few thoughts occur.

One of Tariq Ramadan’s favoured rhetorical ploys, employed during the debate, is to blather at length about the need for “dialogue” and “discourse” (as if no-one else had thought to suggest such a thing), before denouncing as “arrogant” almost any statement, question or discussion that might realistically address the fundamental issues. In response to this manoeuvre, Douglas Murray asks how a “dialogue” might begin:

“Where does [the dialogue] start? Would it start, for instance, with making a joke? Contra Mr Khomeini – not a funny man. Or, would it start with an article, perhaps? Would it start, perhaps, with a film? It did, a few years ago, with Submission, and Theo van Gogh was killed. Could it start with making a joke, perhaps? A joke in a cartoon? Well, apparently not, because we know there were burnings and killings and lootings and rioting across the globe in reaction to those cartoons. If you’re going to start a dialogue, what could you do that would be smaller than drawing a cartoon? This dialogue which we keep on being offered is not reciprocated.” 

Indeed. The “dialogue” Ramadan forever alludes to, somewhat vaguely, is by implication a dialogue on strictly Islamic terms – which is to say, on terms that are censorious, often circular and profoundly unrealistic. In this, Ramadan is far from alone. I’ve lost count of how many people seem to imagine that it’s somehow possible to challenge jihadist ideology and related horrors without mentioning Muhammad’s rather central role in the origination, sanctioning and perpetuation of those horrors, and without offending an apparently endless menu of other ‘sensitivities’. But if one cannot – dare not – draw attention to the link between sacralised atrocity and the exhortations of Islam’s founder, then what kind of dialogue is likely to be had?

Related. And. Also. Plus.

Values and Confidence

Those of you who missed the Spectator’s excellent live debate, We Should Not Be Reluctant to Assert the Superiority of Western Values, can download an mp3 here. Ibn Warraq, Douglas Murray and David Aaronovitch trade spirited arguments with Tariq Ramadan, Charles Glass and William Dalrymple. One audience member raises the question of whether such a freewheeling debate could be had in certain other societies without fear or threats of violence. Tempers do fray a little towards the end of the Q&A session - most notably when a rattled Tariq Ramadan shouts about his “humility” - but no shoes or chairs are thrown. Feel free to take notes. There may be a test later.

Douglas Murray’s article to accompany the debate can be read here, and Tariq Ramadan’s forked tongue is visible here. Update: see this.

Related. And. Also. Plus.


A reader named Peetbox thinks this site needs more music. Well, at least one musical item usually appears in the weekly ephemera round-up, spanning anything from Charles Trenet and Keiishi Suzuki to Herbie Hancock and Doris Day (alas, not together). But I agree with Mr, um, Box. There’s always room for more. To that end, here’s the video for Promesas by Chilean super-group, Los Mono. I suppose it might be described as bracing electro-jive. 

From the album Somos Los Que Estamos. More. And. Random monkey link.


This seems relevant. Wilfred McClay reviews Todd Gitlin’s The Intellectuals and the Flag, a critique, from the left, of the left’s intellectual malaise and the academic world that it dominates.

“The left embraced the smug disassociation from existing society epitomized in the sweeping call by Herbert Marcuse for a ‘Great Refusal’ of the confining ideals and crass manipulations of the modern capitalist political economy. But the embrace of Marcuse's slogan has amounted in practice to a ‘great withdrawal,’ a narcissistic retreat into self-proclaimed ‘marginality,’ an obsession with ever more minute forms of identity politics and the infinite ‘problematizing’ of ‘truth,’ a reflexive opposition to America and the West, and an immurement in ‘theories’ whose radicalism is so pure that they never quite touch down to earth - follies all underwritten and protected by the perquisites and comforts of academia.”

More. Related. And. Plus. Also. Via Arts & Letters Daily.

Arrogance and Knowledge

In the wake of the “Islam is Peace” PR campaign (discussed here) and Trevor Phillips’ attempts to rewrite history, today’s Times reports on yet another cause of Islam’s image problem:

“Some Muslim medical students are refusing to attend lectures or answer exam questions on alcohol-related or sexually transmitted diseases because they claim it offends their religious beliefs. Some trainee doctors say learning to treat the diseases conflicts with their faith, which states that Muslims should not drink alcohol and rejects sexual promiscuity.

A small number of Muslim medical students have even refused to treat patients of the opposite sex. One male student was prepared to fail his final exams rather than carry out a basic examination of a female patient. The religious objections by students have been confirmed by the British Medical Association (BMA) and General Medical Council (GMC), which both stressed that they did not approve of such actions.

It will intensify the debate sparked last week by the disclosure that Sainsbury’s is permitting Muslim checkout operators to refuse to handle customers’ alcohol purchases on religious grounds. It means other members of staff have to be called over to scan in wine and beer for them at the till.”

It isn’t clear who is to foot the bill for the additional staffing and training required to accommodate this latest sensitivity, and customers will, it seems, be expected to quietly accept the inconvenience - and the implied insult regarding their choice of beverage. Signs of customer impatience with this unfolding farce risk being construed as ‘Islamophobic’ and thus unspeakably wicked. And it is, I think, unlikely that Sainsbury’s will feel equally obliged to provide a checkout lane for customers who don’t wish to be delayed and inconvenienced by hypersensitive Muslim checkout staff.

“Critics, including many Islamic scholars, see the concessions as a step too far, and say Muslims are reneging on their professional responsibilities.” 

Indeed. Those who presume to inflict their superstitious vanities on others in this way should, of course, be prepared to deal with the practical consequences of that decision, i.e. finding another job more suited to their sensitivities.

“This weekend, however, it emerged that Sainsbury’s is also allowing its Muslim pharmacists to refuse to sell the morning-after pill to customers. At a Sainsbury’s store in Nottingham, a pharmacist named Ahmed declined to provide the pill to a female reporter posing as a customer. A colleague explained to her that Ahmed did not sell the pill for ‘ethical reasons’. Boots also permits pharmacists to refuse to sell the pill on ethical grounds.”

I wonder how well a Boots or Sainsbury’s customer might fare if they were to raise ethical objections to aspects of Islamic theology and its practical ramifications, say in terms of apostasy, sexual minorities or the retailing of food and medical treatments.

“The BMA said it had received reports of Muslim students who did not want to learn anything about alcohol or the effects of overconsumption. ‘They are so opposed to the consumption of it they don’t want to learn anything about it,’ said a spokesman. The GMC said it had received requests for guidance over whether students could ‘omit parts of the medical curriculum and yet still be allowed to graduate’.” 

Alas, the article doesn’t explore the arrogance that lies behind an assumption that one can claim a qualification that hasn’t actually been earned, or that one is entitled to retain a job one isn’t actually willing to do. But it does, by implication, shed light on practical reasons for the intellectual shortcomings of much of the Islamic world, and their self-inflicted nature.

Related. And. Also.   

Friday Ephemera

How to deal with telemarketing calls. (H/T, Dr Westerhaus.) // Reposted by request: BT courtesy call goes horribly, horribly wrong. “Do you comprehend?” // Faces in places. // BBC TV idents. From the Fifties to the modern day. // Further to this, behold the future of re-entry. In emergencies. // Running countdown to fictional future events. Some overdue. (H/T, Grow-a-brain.) // World freedom atlas. Scan the world for freedom of expression, freedom of belief and individual rights. // Robert Spencer casts a critical eye over the “Islam is peace” PR campaign. // What does ‘jihad’ mean? “The 199 references in the most standard collection of Hadith all assume that jihad means warfare.” // The pearl of Allah. // Islamic comic book heroes. “Questions have been raised about the clothing the heroes wear.” // Nuns disagree. Things turn ugly. // A gallery of ejector seats. // How missiles work. // Exchanging Greetings and Introductions. (1960) How Earthlings greet. // Kavel Rafferty’s vintage record sleeves. (H/T, Coudal.) // Lava lamp packaging. The classic Century 102. // The American Package Museum. Gum, cocoa. tinned marshmallows. // The Birotron. Retro-electronica. It didn’t catch on. More. // Via Grow-a-brain, the, um, magnificent Belinda Bedeković. Video. Warning: it seems not to end. // And, via The Thin Man, Kathy Kirby gets groovy and bombastic.