From Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol (1923).
What We Do: Deprofessionalisation and Legitimacy
I first heard the word ‘deprofessionalised’ from Ashis Nandy, about a decade ago. In the course of conversation, he had said amiably, ‘Mushirul Hassan calls me a “deprofessionalised intellectual”.’ With quiet satisfaction and perhaps gratitude, he added that he couldn’t have maintained his singular status without the support of the CSDS, the institution at which he was a Fellow. I immediately took to the word and to the idea. The negative prefix ‘de’, as in ‘demobbed’, suggests a certain lack of volition (as one doesn’t choose to be but one is ‘demobbed’) in relation to occupying this category, while hinting at a quality of belatedness, of following an epochal shift (soldiers are demobbed after a war). These echoes made the state of deprofessionalisation attractive in a counter-intuitive way. That Nandy should have found an institution to pay him for undertaking this project of calculated unemployment, and unemployability, was fortunate and appropriate.
This is not a talk about Nandy. What I hope to put together here is a series of moments. But I wish to stay with Nandy just a little bit longer, since the episode I’ve referred to comprises one of those moments. What’s odd about Nandy, and what has made him resistant to our latent notions of professionalisation, is that he doesn’t have a clear disciplinary denomination. In the programme for this symposium, I’ve described Nandy as a psychologist (since psychology accounts for his training and inflects his interpretative apparatus) and as a cultural commentator (because of his wide-ranging inclinations and also as an acknowledgement of how he’s read). But he’s clearly no public intellectual in the American sense, given his language is too arcane and pedagogical to fully inhabit the public sphere. Nor is he really an exemplary post-Independence academic, as his output isn’t pedagogical or disciplinary enough. To a certain extent, Nandy has had to make up his own pedagogy as he’s gone along. Maybe the best definition for him would be the problematic and open-ended category of the ‘writer’. The fact that we never actually speak of him as a writer probably speaks of our steadfast attempts to professionalise him and others like him.
Here, let me say a few words about my own relationship to that word, ‘writer’, which evidently involves the pursuit of a species of accomplishment or knowledge that no one wants to easily own up to. There was a time when I understood perfectly V S Naipaul’s sense of fraudulence about committing it to his passport in the blank space next to ‘Profession’. It took him six novels to finally shake off that anxiety to do with being identified with what is possibly – despite the undeniable fact of publication (a word that, of course, contains ‘public’ within it) – a covert ambition. Today, I still find myself unsure about using the term of myself. The one thing that has pushed me towards it is, paradoxically, an institutional position I have held since 2006. The position comprises a title that is itself a generic description: Professor of Contemporary Literature (at the University of East Anglia). Apparently to be a professor means, first of all, to profess who you are; only on the basis of this disclosure can you then profess to others. If anything, the invocation of the word ‘professor’ in order to describe myself creates a sense of unease in me that exceeds the sleight of hand I still feel I’m in involved in when I call myself a ‘writer’. This is partly because I never entered academia, as a student, for any other reason but to further my project of becoming a published novelist. I played around with the thought of dropping my doctorate but completed it to keep up appearances. But I was successful in my agenda: my second novel was published a week before my viva in June 1993. Since then, I held a two-year research fellowship but no regular job until I took up the post at the University of East Anglia in 2006. About that institution, I felt as I had about England when I was a student: that I happened to be in it at a certain point of time, and that I was there for longer than I thought I would be. I always expected – and expect – to go back one day to where I came from. One thing I’ve noticed about myself in this period is that I’ve made it a point, semi-consciously, to hold on to my personal email address, and to use the institutional email address sparingly. The latter is an area of domicile; I inhabit it in name only. My personal email address, on the other hand, isn’t ‘home’; it’s an anywhere; it has no actual identity. That I often use it for institutional work isn’t inconsistent with this fact. It’s in this period, especially in the last six years, when I’ve been increasingly trying escape being called an academic, that I find myself admitting, with far less prevarication than before, to being a ‘writer’.
The period I’ve mentioned – between 1993 and 2006, the time when I was more or less unemployed, engaged in the experiment of being a full-time writer – was remarkable for the changes it either encompassed or consolidated in connection with ‘professsionalisation’.
Developments in America in the sphere of what might loosely be called the ‘literary’ were at once self-perpetuating and polarizing, bringing another dimension to the relationship between the worlds of ‘creative writing’ and ‘literary studies’. ‘Creative writing’ would become a self-contained economy in the US; it’s an economy that has been taxonomised more recently by the novelist Chad Harbach as, simply, ‘MFA’. It comprises students of creative writing who, upon attaining doctorates in creative writing, then become teachers of creative writing; in contrast, say, to an earlier lot of teachers, who would be appointed to those posts on the basis of novels they’d published. MFA teachers publish novels, too, but there’s a growing number of such professors who, according to Harbach, are read and known only in the ecology of MFA. Harbach compares and contrasts ‘MFA’ with what he calls ‘NYC’, or writers published and disseminated by mainstream New York publishing houses. What’s also striking is how the self-sustaining specialization of MFA finds an unmistakable echo in American literary studies. On the one hand, MFA is, of course, the ‘other’ of literary studies. It pursues an ethic of craft, the sentence, the appropriate adjective, and the placement of the comma, deriving its advocacy of the value of writing from Flaubert and from US editors, such as Gordon Lish, who present a powerful parody of Flaubert. Literary studies’ eschewal of literary value is also an eschewal of the seemingly fragile world enshrined in MFA; on the other hand, though, it mirrors it perfectly. The true subject of the scholarship and discussion within American ‘literary studies’ since the nineties has neither been literature nor the critical theory that problematises literature, but the works produced by scholars of literary studies. The auto-nourishing ecological model that has, according to Harbach, characterized ‘MFA’ is also one that almost entirely shapes American literary studies. The animosity and distance between the two is very real; but so is the particular mode of professionalisation that defines these competing pedagogical domains.
For me, ‘creative writing’ was a rumour till I taught literature to MFA students for a few months at Columbia University at the end of 2002: there, I confronted it as a discipline for the first time. But the kind of professionalisation it represented was, to me, a distant threat or problem. Even the term ‘writer’, about which, as I’ve said, I had a Naipaulean hesitation, was less troublesome, less of an immediate concern to be grappled with, than the word ‘novelist’. It had begun to speak for me. Yet both it, and the genre it derived from, the ‘novel’, were uneasy constructs, and my fidelity to them was, by the end of the nineties, wavering. The ‘novel’, as much as the ‘novelist’, seemed to involve a set of guidelines that might be of no interest to those who are practicing or exploring that form, or who inhabit that role. The word ‘novelist’, as a proprietary definition, underestimates the ambivalence practitioners sometimes feel towards their practice, or the genre or form they’re using. It is, then, salutary to be reminded by the writer Kirsty Gunn of Virginia Woolf’s disavowal of these terms in a diary entry on Saturday 27th June 1925, when she’s composing one of her greatest pieces of writing: ‘I am making up “To the Lighthouse” — the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new — by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’
In 1999, I returned to India, having published three novels, and about to publish the fourth in 2000; then I began to deprofessionalise myself. On the face of it, this might refer to the process by which I left the next nine years open-ended, publishing my fifth novel only in 2009, using the interim to bring to light a book of stories, another of poems, a critical study, a collection of critical essays, edit two anthologies, and record and perform music (which I had also secretly been doing earlier, though the notion of a secret performance is probably an oxymoron). All this was certainly integral to my deprofessionalisation. But I wasn’t only attempting to part ways with the ‘professionalised’, however one wishes to interpret that term. Increasingly, I wished to break with mimesis, and the mimetic tendencies of both the novel and the novelist in the last twenty five years.
The novel, unlike other literary forms – the poem, the story, the essay, the novella – is primarily identified with completeness. Whatever other traits it may have that makes the genre heterogeneous, its formal rejection of synecdoche makes its capacity for accommodating, representing, engendering, and reflecting a world, or the world, its most characteristic feature. In some ways, it not only reflects the world, but is continuous with what we understand the world should be. To abjure this characteristic, as a novelist, is to say, contrarily, that you are ill-at-ease with the mimesis deep within the form. Neither mimesis nor completeness in fiction can, however, be wholly reduced to the practice of realism. Novels might be fantastic or hyperbolic, but those very traits of the fantastical or hyperbolic might be mimetic, as in the case of Latin American fiction, or a particular kind of Indian novel in English. Think of Marquez’s apparently provocative remark, that the bizarre transmogrifications of his fictional terrain are actually not bizarre at all, but a record of the reality of Latin America, and you begin to understand the particular modulation of the mimetic compulsion – the project of creating a narrative language adequate to representing a culture – in the ‘magic realist’ novel. Formal mimesis – whereby pastiche, allegory, or fairy tale come to somehow be related to how we represent the globalised or multicultural world – was far more pervasive in the nineties than a mimesis to do simply with how characters speak or how settings are described.
If the novel today is mimetic of how we understand the ‘global’, the cultural, the novelist too has as much a representative role to play as the genre of his or her choice. The novelist must be as complete in his or her identity as the novel is in its. The primary way of doing this is to produce novels, and to do so with regularity, every two or three years. The market has reified this pattern of productivity: it dictates that the novelist abide by it in order to adhere to a fundamentally mimetic principle. You must produce a novel every few years, it suggests. How can you be a novelist if you stop writing novels? It’s a chain: the novel gives us the world; the novelist gives us novels. This is the market’s parody of romantic organicism: ‘as naturally as leaves to a tree, or not at all’, Keats had said of how poetry should come to poets; and the market ensures that the novelist will need to write novels in the same way (periodically) that trees come into leaf or cows produce milk. Ian McEwan has, since the late eighties, been the exemplar of this mimetic function. To break away is to depart the parameters that govern the representational.
Let me, here, introduce two brief variations on this theme. In a literary ethos in which a reliable means of identifying who a novelist is is essential, and the recurrent production of novels the most reliable mode of identification, the example of the author of the successful first novel is, paradoxically, central to how we now construct or conceive of this identity. In the shrunken time, the ‘now’, of globalization, the first novel is not a beginning: it’s a culmination, a triumphant declaration. For the market, the author of the successful first novel is forever a ‘novelist’, whether or not they ever write a novel again; the novels to come are, in a sense, irrelevant. Here, the Naipaulean hesitation is incongruous and anachronistic, as are the niggles of fraudulence.
The second variation has to do with an actor I haven’t mentioned so far: the reader. The main question regarding deprofessionalised time has to do, I suppose, with what one is doing with it. This is pertinent not only to the writer, or to the matter of what writers do all day, but also to the person who’s absorbed in reading. In the interview in which Kirsty Gunn makes that pointed reference to Woolf, interviewer and interviewee spend a short while discussing the inexplicable time we spend reading books. Reading literature is hard work, notes the interviewer; it entails learning how to read. ‘People often see me and they’ll say: what have you done all day? If I tell them I’ve been reading they’re often confused.’ Gunn responds: ‘There’s a great Bill Hicks joke about that. A waitress comes over to him and says: what ya readin’ for?’ The same could be said of the time spent listening to music. It no longer possesses that bewildering exclusivity. Living memory tells us that there was an age when we would buy a record and listen to it on a music system for about an hour. What were we doing in that duration, seated on a sofa and staring ahead of us?
I’d like to bring in a more conventional and sociological meaning of the word ‘deprofessionalisation’ at this point, to do with how globalisation and the market, which create a function for the writer, a function defined by a rate and type of productivity, also create contexts that take away the writer’s metaphoric and literal functions. One of the most acute observers and spokespersons for the writer’s loss of function is the Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugrešić.
Ugrešić experiences a loss of function on several levels: of one who was a Yugoslav writer who had to ‘wake up one day as a Croatian writer’ (notice the studied echo of Kafka); of one who believed that writing and freedom of expression were all on the ‘other side’, in the democratic West, only to discover, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of various nations, that the market in the ‘free world’ chose producers of books over writers of books; of one who might have served a function in the ‘free world’ as a writer from a socialist state, except socialism had vanished. All this Ugrešić realised, like Gregor Samsa, upon waking up one morning: the transformative abnegation from definition that would now dominate her work and life.
Ugrešić then went on to become a precise analyst of not just the writer’s irrelevance, but the irrelevance of their compulsion – their malady or gift, whatever you wish to call it – in the new age. As Kafka knew, the malady – the deviation from normalcy – was both a curse and a claim to uniqueness because it only occurred in a few. So his ‘hunger artist’ confesses before he dies: ‘I always wanted to you to admire my starving,’ to which the overseer replies, ‘We do admire it.’ ‘But you’re not to admire it,’ protests the hunger artist, and utters, by way of explanation, his last words: ‘Because… I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I wouldn’t have made any fuss, and I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.’ (This is Michael Hofmann’s translation.)
The reason the hunger artist died was because he was no longer needed; the crowd ‘got used to the oddity… people walked past him. Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained.’ But what if starving could be pursued and ‘felt’ by everybody: what then would be the hunger artist’s fate? It’s such a moment Ugrešić confronts in the recently globalised world as she sits in a New York hotel, reading the New York Times Book Review, struck in particular by a ‘lengthy’ review of a novel by Ivana Trump, a Czech beauty queen, a champion swimmer and skier, and ex-wife of Donald Trump. In her latest branching out, Ivana Trump has written a novel: the Times reviews it favourably. ‘I wouldn’t have noticed it,’ says Ugrešić of the review, ‘if Joseph Brodsky hadn’t received in the very same issue an unjustly malicious review of his latest book Watermark. One reviewer vilified Brodsky for his language “jammed with metaphors,” and the other praised Ivana for her analytical intelligence…’
Brodsky is now the hunger-artist, but not because his malady is no longer intriguing to others, or because it’s found a cure, but because there’s apparently nothing peculiar any more about the DNA that would have meant he was doomed to the malady. The writer is robbed of his ‘condition’ and sense of predestination, of being for some reason unable to escape his compulsion – the compulsion which he disguised as his craft, and which came to characterise him to others. In the new age, it’s not the singularity of the malady that loses significance; it’s the singularity of the genetic make-up that made it inevitable. This makes the artist pointless. As Ugrešić puts it, ‘[H]aving become a writer of world renown, it would have been difficult for Brodsky to become a brilliant skier, while it was easy for Ivana Trump to go from being a skier to a writer, even a brilliant analyst of political conditions in her former communist homeland…’
The hunger artist’s life revolves round two axes: the craft or art of starving, and an entity called the ‘crowd’. Walter Benjamin, avidly attentive to Kafka, introduces the ‘crowd’ as a key player as he constructs, in his essay, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, a history of the rise of the nineteenth-century realist novel. This ascendancy he connects not to the author’s wish to reflect society, but society’s – or the ‘crowd’s’ – new and unprecedented desire to see itself reflected in this burgeoning genre. ‘It became a customer; it wished to find itself portrayed in the contemporary novel, as the patrons did in the paintings of the Middle Ages.’ So there’s a remarkable process of democratisation at work here, supplanting both an exclusive aristocratic clientele and the services of elite portrait painters, energising, through mass readership, narrative portrayal. We live in the shadow of that moment in which the transition from the portrait painted in an opulent room to the public domain of widely disseminated fiction took place. The aftermath of the transition lasted for more than a century, but, in the 1980s, another comparable transition occurred. From now on, the crowd no longer wanted to ‘see’ itself in a work of art or in a novel; more and more, it wished to be – for a limited duration, even – the artist or novelist. At the heart of this was the emergence of karaoke, and a space for amateur, tuneless, and infectious music performances. Today, needless to add, we have the cell phone as the most significant facilitator of this second moment to do with the ‘crowd’. In the interim have been released the variegated performers of amateurism, deprofessionalisation, and reprofessionalisation: the fascinating everyday photographers and makers of short films on mobile phones and YouTube on the one hand; on the other, the celebrity chefs and comedians whose memoirs and children’s books are now the mainstay of reputed literary publishers. We must add to this an influential school of karaoke politics whose very lack of professionalism is alluring in an era in which the professional politician is contemptible; thus, the viability of the ragbag Aam Admi Party and of the rebarbative Donald Trump. Here, an ontological predisposition, or affliction, or talent, like an artistic temperament, or a mastery of prose style, or the hunger artist’s mysterious disaffection with food, must seem out of place. It’s in this context that we must place Ugrešić’s parable on Joseph Brodsky and Ivana Trump.
Let me refer in passing here also to the writer and critic Marina Warner’s testament to ‘quitting’ (her word) the university – Essex – where she’d had a position for some years both as a professor and a writer (much as I do at East Anglia). The thoughts she put on record in the London Review of Books after resigning are now well known. They trace the arc of how a writer who was trying to do something different within the department increasingly found herself unable to proceed, given the new, largely commercial, criteria related to measuring the importance of academic activities of departments (such as ‘impact’), leaving her with no choice but to ‘quit’ and return to being a full-time writer. The untold story proximate to this narrative – as I put it to Warner later – has surely to do with how, in Britain, much the same sort of transformation has characterised publishing in the last two decades. To mimic Ugrešić’s tone, it was easy for a respected professor to give up her job and go back to being a well-known writer; but what happens when the well-known writer ceases to be publishable? I reproduce my words from an email: ‘I was struck by the similarities [between recent changes in British universities and]… what has been happening in the world of publishing for two decades now: the solemnity of terms like “impact” is foreshadowed by the often theological nobility attributed to commercial ambitions in the name of “great writing”. The matter is little spoken of, though. Editors are “quitting” all the time, but can’t, apparently, go public about why they change or lose jobs, because they have to stay in the industry in one incarnation or the other: as publisher or, increasingly, as agent. Meanwhile, writers, alas, can be dropped, but they can’t quit.’ We come back to Ugrešić’s dilemma, whether it’s crystallised via the New York Times, Joseph Brodsky, and Ivana Trump, through Kafka, or through a decision taken by a publisher to stop publishing you. You may become unviable as a writer; but how do you stop being a writer if you can’t rid yourself of the habit and the act of writing?
Let me end with a brief coda on the words I referred to when I began – Mushirul Hasan’s term for Ashis Nandy, ‘deprofessionalised intellectual’ – and address the question they implicitly raise, to do with legitimacy. Legitimacy is especially pertinent to the intellectual’s position in contemporary India.
I admit that my thoughts come partly as a response to a thoroughly engaging essay by one of India’s best-known writers, Ramachandra Guha, on the paucity of right-wing intellectuals in this country. Why are there so few, he asks, of any real note or merit; isn’t the absence of such figures the reason why our presently dominant right wing is driven conceptually by shamanism, demagoguery, and magic? It’s a good question, though it sidesteps the matter of how the extreme right has, in the past, been adept at appropriating the inheritance of the most angular of philosophers – like, say, Nietzsche. There’s also the curious business of writers on the left occasionally making a philosopher with dodgy political affinities their intellectual mentor – Heidegger comes to mind as precisely such a mentor. There’s a befuddling blurring of lines, then, not only to do with the intellectual history of the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, but with how discrete and competing lineages are invented.
However, what exactly does Guha mean by the term ‘intellectual’? The outline of who this person might be occurs very early in the essay, when Guha contrasts the intellectual to the ideologue.
One must distinguish here between the work done by intellectuals and that done by ideologues. Each academic discipline has its own protocols on what constitutes serious scholarship. Historians dig deeply into primary material, whether letters or manuscripts or state documents or court records or temple inscriptions; and sociologists and anthropologists do extended fieldwork in the locations they study. Their first-hand, original research is then written up and analysed, and presented in scholarly papers in academic journals or in books brought out by established publishers. The judgment on one’s scholarly work comes principally from one’s colleagues—first, before it is published, as part of the peer-review process practiced by professional journals and book publishers, and then, once it is in print, by how often the work is cited.
There is a distinction to be drawn between intellectuals and ideologues, who are more interested in promoting their political or religious beliefs than in contributing to the growth of knowledge. The writings of ideologues are rarely based on serious or extended research.
What we’re being inadvertently introduced to here is a familiar habit of thinking, to do with legitimising the intellectual. The term ‘deprofessionalised intellectual’, really a tautology – for you don’t choose or desire to be an intellectual any more than you elect to think – must, in the context being set up by Guha, appear a contradiction in terms. But surely the difference between the intellectual and the ideologue can’t be ascertained by comparing the marks of legitimacy to the ideologue’s apparently illegitimate air; or contrasting the rational and verifiable (as shored up by archival research) with the unproven and the speciously dogmatic? Do thought and insight necessarily have to subsist on evidence? Surely what’s important here is the significance ascribed, or not ascribed, to process. The ideologue is invested in fixity; since thinking is a process, the one who thinks finds themselves situated in, and as a result often reflecting on, the nature and value of process, which brought them to intellectual life in the first place. But if the one who thinks – the intellectual – is, without much reflection, conflated with an idea of the social scientist or the historian, only parts of whose practice are mentioned inasmuch as these legitimise the practice – ‘primary material’; ‘first-hand, original research’; ‘peer-review’ – then we’re confronted with a gesture that’s over-familiar to us in India, and which itself represents a kind of fixity. What’s been notable where Guha is concerned is how the more wayward aspects of his work and sensibility – his affinities with Verrier Elwin and CLR James, his enthusiasm for cricket and his beginnings as an anthropologist – have, as his reputation has gone mainstream, been downplayed for a more generic role: that of the historian. In fact, Guha, unusually for a historian, often prefaces his remarks with the words, ‘Speaking as a historian’, as if to be one depended on a Cartesian declaration. This is what sometimes happens in India: being a ‘thinker’ culminates in becoming a spokesperson for a discipline. One speaks as, and for, this or that; it’s the discipline that needs confirming and upholding, as it upholds one’s work. What we end up opposing the ideologue with is not thought, but legitimacy.
A word on ‘research’. Since the rise of the historical novel in India and in Britain, ‘research’ is meant to professionalise the time of writing fiction, to take it out of the inexplicable domain that reading a book or listening to a record on the hi fi once belonged to, so that one might have an adequate – a respectable – answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ The questioner is going to be less anxious if the reply, ‘I’m a novelist’, automatically implies, ‘I engage in serious research’. Of late, in India – where the notion of research is deeply embedded in our regard for the plausible, the verifiable, and the professionalised – I’m often told, ‘You must do a lot of research,’ when I admit to writing novels. To which I’ve begun to say, ‘Yes, but not for particular books. I’m doing research all the time.’ If one is engaged in uninterrupted research – as any writer or artist is – the question of the writer’s use of time, of activity and productivity, once more becomes unsatisfyingly open-ended, and other questions – to do with how we think, work, prepare to and speak of work – must take the place of the recurrent one about what we do.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. He conceptualised the ‘literary activism’ symposia, and is the editor of this website.