Acting Like a Professor
Issue #25, March 1996
At the start of 1994 I began two lengthy writing projects. I started work on the final draft of my book, Ideology, (published by Routledge). At the same time, I discovered the Internet and gradually began posting messages to newsgroups and mailing lists. Before I knew it I was spending 4-6 hours daily on the book and 2-3 on the net, while teaching a full load of courses and shouldering my share of administrative burdens. In some ways, I suppose, writing for the net was a procrastination, at best a distraction from my real work. But the two activities seemed strangely complementary. I found that the book progressed the better the more I wrote on the net. It soon became clear that the two activities were in some way dependent on each other. What was going on?
The media of the net and the printed page demand and provoke two very different modes of discourse. They evoke, so to speak, two very different authorial subject-positions. And, as we have been told by sages from Homer to Derrida, the voice which speaks to us in a written text is not identical to the voice of the real-life person who wrote it. The ancient concept of inspiration shares with the postmodern notion of differance the belief that writing exceeds the author's subjective intentions, his personality. When you spend most of your waking life writing, you spend a lot of time speaking in a voice which is not your own. In my case, there were two of them.
Obviously, writing an academic book requires that you take a certain tone with your material, and that you adopt a particular attitude towards your readers. Broadly speaking, that attitude is pedagogical, and it is assumed that you are speaking from or aspiring to a position of authority. You have to behave, that is to say, like a professor. It isn't easy. I flatter myself that in appearance and demeanor I remain, so far, quite unprofessorial. People I meet outside work are generally bemused to learn what I do for a living. At work, however — in front of a class or in a committee meeting — it is necessary to adopt a particular persona. It is also, indeed pre-eminently, necessary to do this when writing a book. If you want it to be taken remotely seriously, you have to write like a professor too. Like this:
When I first signed a contract to write a book on the concept of "ideology", I was immediately confronted by two weighty problems. First of all, there were already several excellent books defining, introducing and debating "ideology". One of these, widely and rightly regarded as the definitive study, was by Terry Eagleton, who was my tutor at Oxford, and to whom I owe an incalculable intellectual debt. I needed to find a way to make my book different from the earlier ones, otherwise, I reasoned, no-one would read it. Secondly, postmodern theory seemed to cast significant doubt on the continued usefulness of the term "ideology". That word usually designates a systematically mistaken way of thinking: a false consciousness. But the combined influence of pragmatism, relativism, deconstruction and postmodernism, the impact of thinkers from Rorty to Foucault, suggests that human beings can have no access to a privileged perspective from which particular modes of thought could be identified as "true" or "false". The Marxist heritage of the word "ideology" made it appear particularly unfashionable in the aftermath of the Eastern bloc's collapse. Clearly, I would have to demonstrate the relevance of this concept to the postmodern era in order to justify writing the book.
As it turned out, the solution to the second problem produced the answer to the first. Postmodernism, I argued, is characterized by a belief in the autonomy and determining power of representation. We see this in the fiduciary economy, where ever more abstract forms of money are exchanged for profit while the material productive base declines. We see it in the unprecedented influence of the media, their unsurpassed power to manipulate thought and emotion. And we see it in the intellectual dominance of theories which suggest that there is no external object, and no transcendent subject, which are not always already constructed by the independent ebb and flow of systems of representation. Since it assumes that one element of the totality (in this case representation) determines the others (the subjective and the objective, the ideal and the material), I argue that postmodernism is a form of "determinism". Essentially my contention is that postmodernism rationalizes and excuses our adoration of the Image. This contemporary form of idolatry is the result of commodity fetishism, which is in turn the consequence of the objectification of subjective human activity, or labor.
Since it admits of no absolute standard of truth, it is difficult to argue that the assumptions of postmodern theory are wrong; indeed, as I point out above, they do seem to be in accordance with the today's historical circumstance. But if we ask what previous historical eras, and different systems of thought, might have made of the postmodern condition, we must surely conclude that they would have judged it harshly. I would claim that the pre-eminence of representation would have appeared as (a) idolatry — the taking of the sign for the thing, and (b) a soul-destroying and mechanical materialism, which reflects only capitalism's merciless reduction of the subject to an object.
I thus decided to try and make my book original by arguing for a particular, specific, definition of ideology. My claim is that, in the West, the notion of false consciousness has been influenced by two seminal ideas: the Hebraic prescription of idolatry (defined and understood as the worship of "the works of men's hands", the products of human labor) and Platonic idealism (the belief the material world is epistemologically, ontologically and ethically inferior to the ideal sphere). It is easy to see the residue of the former in Protestantism's critique of "works righteousness" and, I argue, in the Marxian understanding of "commodity fetishism". As developed by Lukács, Debord and Adorno, this last concept remains the clue to the false consciousness of postmodern society.
The history of idealist determinism is more convoluted. After the Enlightenment, idealism was confounded by its antithesis: mechanical materialism, which Lukács correctly calls "inverted Platonism". Although ostensibly contradictory, dogmatic idealism and materialism share the erroneous assumption that one pole of the matter/spirit dichotomy determines the other (whereas it is in fact a mutually definitive binary opposition). The Hegelian dialectic represents the most advanced attempt to work through the relationship between the interpenetrating realms of the ideal and the material, and the work of Marx and Lukács explains why these spheres at present remain disjunct, or "alienated" from each other.
This dual tradition provides an extremely convincing and durable means of demonstrating the falsity of other ideas. Furthermore, it appears peculiarly well suited to diagnoses of the postmodern condition, and this longevity may well be adduced a testament to its veracity.
In order to substantiate this, I had to trace the eddies of these two currents through the history of Western philosophy since the Renaissance. A big job for a little book: I'd been told not to go above 200 pages. I decided that in the interests of brevity, I would have to omit secondary works altogether, and focus on one or two works by those thinkers who had advanced what I saw as this continuous, coherent description of false consciousness. The resulting book is, of necessity, boldly ambitious (some would say absurdly over-extensive) in chronology, while remaining clearly focused (some would say narrowly dogmatic) in its argument.
The book deals, in an average of 3-4 pages each, with the following: Isaiah, Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Savonarola, Machiavelli, Luther, Bacon, Milton, Hobbes, Locke, Condillac, Helvetius, Rousseau, Burke, de Tracy, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Strauss, Feuerbach, Marx, Simmel, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, Althusser, Macherey, Adorno, Horkehimer, Weber, Freud, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Volosinov, Barthes, Nietzsche, Foucault, Debord, Baudrillard and Zizek. It was, with hindsight, a reckless project for a 29 year-old to undertake. It required that I take a firm, substantiated position on the most profound thinkers in history within a few weeks of reading them; and that I identify a consistent pattern of thought running through all of them. It demanded, as all academic books do, that the author act like a professor, maintaining a position of authority and confidence that he does not always feel.
I suppose that, to facilitate the adoption of this persona, I practiced on the internet. I soon noticed that my messages were characterized by a tyrannical vehemence of expression, combined with a maniacal commitment to the controversial. It became apparent that I was speaking in a character very far removed from my equable, affable, everyday nature. I felt as though the ghost of Edmund Burke or Dr. Johnson had possessed my computer. My unease was compounded by the compulsive, shameless quantity of my posts. I began chipping away with a post every week or so, but soon it was up to three or four, then one a day, then two a day, then five. Then ten. I could see that this was ridiculous, but seemed powerless to stop. The discussions on the Bad Subjects list, in particular, ranged across such a gamut of areas and authors, that they were perfectly suited to my need to squeeze the History of Western Philosophy into a 200-page nutshell. They helped me develop the skills I needed: thinking on my feet, rhetoric, the ability to appear authoritative, the faculty of forming judgments and opinions rapidly and coherently. More than anything else, I'd never have had the gall even to try to write this book is I hadn't steeled myself in on-line debate in the process.
Is there such a thing as "graphomania" — addiction to writing? It took will power to get up at 4am, as I did every day for two years, and trudge into the office through blizzard and gale. And yet this self-discipline would completely desert me when, the day's serious writing done, I began to surf the net. On some days, I would sit for hours in front of the screen, battling the compulsion to post yet another message to some long-suffering list. It seemed that posting served a therapeutic purpose: the authoritative, professorial voice in which I'd been writing all day would run amok, becoming an exaggeration, a parody, a caricature of intellectual pugnacity. Strange as it may sound, I think that writing for the net stopped me from taking myself too seriously.
Interestingly, I pretty much kicked my posting habit as soon as the book was finally out of my hands. Since last summer I've managed to keep it down to one or two relatively staid messages a week, which suits me very well. I miss the excitement of being caught up in three or four threads simultaneously, but my life is much calmer and more varied now that I'm not writing every single spare moment. I no longer wake my girlfriend with nocturnal fits of the giggles as I recall that day's messages to the list. I can converse of matters other than de Tracy's refutation of Burke's Reflections. I have rediscovered the pleasures of travel and drinking beer. Mind you, it'll soon be time for another book...
David Hawkes is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His book, Ideology, was released by Routledge Press on March 14.