Towards an Academic Imperative

I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.

Academic writing at the end of 2016. Credit: KC Green

Just before Christmas I ran into someone from the English department in Waterstones buying John Williams’ Stoner as a gift for a relative, and I wondered if this was not some secret expression, a subtle cry for help from the humanities as a whole. Like William’s ordinary academic, we must struggle to live with dignity, compelled to sacrifice ourselves to the commercial machinery of the academy, which cares for us not a jot. I think of Stoner’s Archer Sloane, broken by the war and his failure to save the young men in his care from throwing their lives away. Looking at that harrowed face, preserved in the tomb of a department office, I see the reflection of our own.

At the same time, I was researching a piece on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading Benjamin and Adorno, looking at the ways they tried (with some failure, some success) to take a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany using critical theory and cultural analysis, unveiled the shortcomings of my own. I spent weeks abject, unable to work because I could not justify the existence of that work, even to myself. I fell into despair, and worse, self-pity. Today it is not enough just to work, or even to work well. We must now justify ourselves, and the worth of our work, not only to ourselves, and our academic communities, but to the world at large. Though I mean this in an ethical and political sense, in the end I fear the justification must also be a financial one.

The thing that helped me to reconcile my desire to work with the imperative to resist (aside from reading what others have said before me) was an invitation to present at a thesis-in-three conference held by the Undergraduate Awards. I was to present a paper which I had written last year on McCarthy’s The Road, but to an interdisciplinary audience, with just three minutes to speak, and a single slide. While I had been happy with my work as a piece of literary criticism, these new parameters forced me to think seriously about what in it was of real material value in this moment of history. What could I take from it to show to the world and, without hesitation, say “Here. Here is something worth even a short amount of your time”? I do not know if I succeeded, but what I decided on was this:

In a historical moment such as ours, when our systems of language, of knowing, of belief, and of truth have been shattered into countless fragments, it may seem natural to desire a return to the grand old narratives that once cohered our society, and our culture. And yet this return is a purely destructive one, a move towards unbecoming.

Given this, I’d like to look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not simply as a parable of our time, but as illustrative of a potential praxis, which might move us towards reconciliation.

The novel presents a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all systems of community, of law, ecology, and epistemology have failed. Language is fading from existence, as the names of things and their meanings are forgotten. All that is left is a man and his son, who must struggle against this world, and find order.

The road itself presents a type of language, a system for understanding one’s relationship to their landscape, via the medium of travel. For the characters, the road becomes a schema for progress, for perpetual motion towards an increasingly nebulous goal. It also provides linear rendering of spatial dimensions, the only semblance of order that they can aspire to impose on their oppressive landscape. Yet this too seems to be slipping away, as the roads crumble, and so too does their map, broken into tattered fragments.

The structure of the novel itself mirrors this process, the sequence of events becoming only loosely connected at points, while at other times McCarthy inserts elliptical paragraph breaks right into the middle of tense moments of action fragmenting the unity, not only of time and space, but the page itself.

To escape this death of language and landscape, the child must reject the narratives put forward by his father, his “old stories of courage and justice”, in favour of something as yet undreamt of, true only to him, and his world without teleology.

He must also reject systems of commodification, both the old system of capitalistic commercialisation, and its apocalyptic counterpart – cannibalism. For McCarthy, something fundamental is shared by these systems of unchecked consumptive greed, and the child instead chooses to live by an ethical code that encourages equality, breaking the egocentric and anthropocentric boundaries of the old world.

The world that has died in the novel is that of American mythology – of exceptionalism, of the frontier, of survivalism, and of capitalism. These myths are auto-cannibalistic in nature – to propagate, they must feed upon themselves. Paradoxically, for this mythological cycle to continue, it must be destroyed and rebuilt in the shape of the now, and this is the key realisation for our moment in time.

The image conjured by the phrase “make America great again” is not one of birth into a new era, but rather one of regression, of the child being dragged screaming back into the womb, towards its undoing. As McCarthy suggests, the beginning and ending of things are closely linked; “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”. So instead, I’d like to suggest that the imperative should be to first make a greatness that is American, to break those grand old narratives down, and find ways in which they might help, rather than hinder, create, rather than destroy.

Academic writing at the start of 2017. Credit: KC Green

So what now? Does this really solve anything? Perhaps I overestimate the value of what we do, but if that’s to be my undoing, I’ll go out with a smile. That said, a critical approach is of no value whatsoever without a counterpart of material praxis. The call to academic action is returned by the call to political and social action on local, national, and international levels. Debate, volunteer, protest, donate, boost the voices of those silenced – these types of action are as vital in the sociopolitical sphere as they are in the academic one. Together, just maybe, we’ll endure.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2007.
Williams, John. Stoner. Vintage, 2012.