Conflict in the Academy: A Study in the Sociology of Intellectuals (2015)

Review: “In late 1980, an apparently minor dispute at Cambridge University became headline news. The question was whether or not the young lecturer Colin MacCabe – whose work was heavily influenced by recent developments in structuralist and post-structuralist theory – should be upgraded to a permanent position. And before long, as Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert put it in their short book Conflict in the Academy, the so-called ‘MacCabe Affair’ had ‘swelled to heroic proportions, drew vast media attention and became invested with considerable moral and symbolic significance,’ generating waves that are still felt in English faculties today.”

Here are some highlights from this 2015 book:

* Commonsensically, we tend to view social conflict as a dysfunctional, destructive, even pathological form of social interaction, harming individuals and groups through tearing the cohesive social fabric, and there is of course much to justify understanding disputes in this way. However, it is also clear, as Lewis Coser (1964) argued, that social conflict is able to serve a variety of productive social functions, such as allowing for the
communication of dissatisfactions, defining group boundaries, providing an impetus for more adequate forms of social organisation, and even increasing social integration, especially, of course, for in-group members. There is also evidence that once the ‘MacCabe Affair’ became public, social pressure increased for participants to take sides. In this sense rather than simply revealing pre-existing divisions, the controversy also acted to create and solidify them, strengthening and simplifying antagonistic identities.

* Public disputes, by their nature, garner attention, and as well as generating grist for the journalistic mill, that attention also enables participants to engage in what Norman Mailer called ‘advertisements for myself ’…

* MacCabe’s subsequent career – three years later he was Head of Production at the BFI, the following year, Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and a little later, Professor of English at Exeter University – renders the notion of him as ‘victim’ somewhat of a misnomer, as he himself readily admits, the ‘ “MacCabe Affair” … enabled me to leave Cambridge trailing clouds of glory and an overinflated reputation’
(MacCabe, 2010a).

His academic writing also benefited from events; his publishers quickly cottoning on to the commercial value of what was described as ‘Cambridge’s worst academic controversy for a generation’ (Mulhern, 1981). With impressive speed, and only two weeks after the Senate House discussion, his publishers took out an advertisement in the TLS, daring potential customers with the explicitly allusive strapline ‘Controversial and Original: Three books by Colin MacCabe’ (Figure 2.1).

* In spite of this late start, after the Great War it [English Literature] began to develop very rapidly, eclipsing the Classics as the central humanities discipline, with the Cambridge School, characterised by its critical and analytical approach (in distinction to Oxford’s philological and scholarly one) playing a central role. The influential, zealous, bolshie, and highly opinionated F. R. Leavis was key in championing the essential importance of the discipline in Cambridge and beyond, and in establishing what arguably became the orthodox humanistic approach to analysing literature until at least the 1960s…

* In some quarters, the experiences of WWII had provoked suspicion towards this antebellum belief in the humanising forces of an education in English Literature, since, as Steiner pointed out, it was now impossible
to ignore how little humanistic acculturation had done to avert the barbarity of war. ‘We know now’, he wrote, ‘that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant’ (Steiner, 1967: ix). Forces of pluralism had also slowly battled their way into the study of English literature during the late 1960s and 1970s (Easthope, 1991), especially outside Oxbridge. In part this occurred through the arrival of a more socially diverse student and staff body and a broadening of the gaze of the discipline to include cultural creations that had traditionally been excluded from the narrow version of the canon that Leavis’s ‘great tradition’ (1980 [1948]) came to represent.

* The shift is expressed well by the novelist and literary professor Malcolm Bradbury in his description of his own career through English departments:

“During the 1950s, when I was a student, the dominant mood in the study of English literature was a moral and humane one; literary studies were the essential humanist subject … But with the expansion and hence the increased professionalisation of the subject, the tune changed: there was a hunger for literary science. By the 1960s, a volatile mixture of linguistics, psychoanalysis and semiotics, structuralism, Marxist theory, and reception aesthetics had begun to replace the older moral humanism. The literary text tended to move towards the status of phenomenon: a socio-psycho-culturo-linguistic and ideological event, arising from the offered competencies of language, the available taxonomies of narrative order, the permutations of genre, the sociological options of structural formation, the ideological constraints of the ‘infra-structure’.”

* the emergence of ‘Theory’ in English departments was not merely an import from abroad (most obviously from France), but (with notable exceptions, such as the work of Barthes) also an import from other disciplines,
in particular, the social and human sciences…

* Wider society had begun to turn away from poems, plays, and novels as their primary source of cultural expression and experience, and a certain minority of the Cambridge English Faculty were suggesting that those media to which their attention had increasingly been drawn could themselves be productively analysed in a similar manner to literature (even if the interest in this broader range of media within the Cambridge Faculty more generally extended nowhere near as far as other English departments elsewhere in the country). Heath, for example, was interested in cinema, Williams had been introducing film into his lectures, MacCabe had just published his book on Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group (MacCabe, 1980) and after the affair went on to develop ‘screen theory’
with Heath and others.11 The expansion of the term ‘culture’ to cover practices and creations beyond the more restricted zones of what might here be called ‘high culture’ was of course a characteristically social scientific – and in particular, anthropological – move to make (Tyler, 1891), and one that Williams (e.g. 1958) had been hard at work elaborating.

Leavis, by contrast, had been clear that genuine culture could only ever be the preserve of a gifted ‘tiny minority’ whose role it was to protect against the majority’s philistinism, and where to possible guide the cultural discrimination of the masses (Leavis, 1930; Carey, 1992, for variations on this theme); his, like Richards’s before him, was a vision of modern cultural decline.

* Though far more consequential than the MacCabe Affair as an event, the Watergate scandal was in fact more simplistic in its symbolic dimension. Effectively, the struggle was over whether the facts of the break-in to the Watergate Hotel were to be told at the level of everyday goals and interests (i.e. the level of ‘politics as usual’) as the Nixon administration wished, or, as eventually took place, at the more sacred levels of societal
norms and values, hence signalling systemic crisis and the need for fundamental purification and renewal.

* Since the majority of the actors made their living from the professional analysis and use of the English language they were therefore highly sensitive to the power of drama, oration, and rhetoric, as well as the seduction of linguistic aesthetic, which added both to the quality and clear theatricality of the events, thus rendering them particularly amenable to dramaturgical analysis.1 Furthermore, argumentation, by its very nature, has a tendency towards rhetorical escalation, a process which often triumphs over whatever pacifying intentions actors may start out with.

* One strategic achievement of the pro camp was securing the Senate House as the stage upon which the main debate would be acted out. Whilst Cambridge is more generally a highly ritualistic university, the Senate House in particular holds a privileged place within the university’s ritualistic geography. It is in many ways the university’s main agora, and is considered distinctly hallowed ground.

* The contribution that a stage and its set makes to what Coleridge called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief ’ is only successful if the actors collude in playing by the script which accords with the set, and the antis had no intention of doing so. The antis’ counterstrategy therefore involved lowering the tone of the proceedings
so as to desacralise the event, deprive it of its ritual status, expose the performance as mere verisimilitude, and so return it to the level of the profane. One tactic to this end involved employing humour and casual indifference to undermine the pros’ efforts towards ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1990 [1959]). In contrast to the sacred and solemn tone that was, quite literally, set by the austere neo-classical building, the jocular triviality with which many of the antis delivered their own performances signalled to the 600 strong audience not only a sense of security in the knowledge that MacCabe’s supporters had already lost the battle and nothing that happened in the Senate House would reverse the Appointment Committee’s decision, but also that the ‘MacCabe Affair’ had nothing at all of the sacred about it.

* Humour, especially in the affective responses it is able to evoke in the form of collective and contagious laughter, has the advantage in symbolic struggles of encouraging shared ‘effervescence’ (Durkheim, 2001 [1912]),
helping solidify a sense of community amongst those who are ‘in on the joke’. Further, it has the added benefit of avoiding the necessity to employ outright invective, which runs the risk of losing favour with one’s audience. The use of humour, if effective in eliciting amusement, acts as a shield and alibi for degrees of offence that would be unthinkable in its absence… The capacity of humour to draw factions of the audience and performer together in shared amusement was also often combined with a variety of other rhetorical techniques, such as sarcasm, insincere
politeness, pretend sympathy and surrealism, all of which drew their performative power from the dramatically potent realm of play…

* audiences collude in determining a performance’s dramatic success, and that the performers themselves are aware of this fact. In this sense, a successful performance ought properly be understood as always to some extent a co-creation involving necessary input from both actors and audience, an implicit rule that structures all dialogic social interaction.

Both sides of the social interface that constitutes a performance are required to ‘play along’ in order for the symbolic communication inherent within it to come off effectively..

* for the pros’ case to hold any legitimacy, it was crucial that they were able to raise the central issue at
stake – MacCabe’s non-reappointment – to the level of the sacred and demonstrate that his failure to receive a permanent lectureship revealed that the central values of the faculty, and by responsibility and association
the university more generally, were under threat if his dismissal went unanswered. They attempted to achieve this by showing that the events had not only threatened propriety in terms of breaching the meso-level norms regulating proper employment procedure, but even further up the symbolic ladder, that a violation of the higher values of fairness, intellectual openness and pluralism had taken place. Achieving the goals of this strategy would mean a necessary acknowledgement that a crisis had occurred and that ritual purification and renewal was therefore

* As a counterstrategy, the antis attempted to disrupt this projected ‘definition of the situation’ and de-sacralise MacCabe’s non-reappointment by claiming that the decision was in actual fact taken at the profane level
of routine appointments considerations.

* Whatever the actual underlying mechanism that had drawn all the attention upon the English Faculty, it is clear that on the performative level, the very fact that so much attention was indeed being paid to the events could be taken as an indication that something untoward must indeed have occurred, or otherwise, why all the fuss? A student in the Senate House, for instance, suggested that ‘[i]f all were well in the English Faculty we would not be here’ (Clemmow, SHD: 360). The very fact that the debate had been called, and the very fact that the national press was still busy printing stories about the events (whether or not these stories were in substance behind the pros’ cause) sustained a performative risk of undermining the antis’ claims that this was simply ‘business as usual’. This placed the antis in somewhat of a ‘Catch 22’ predicament, since their substantive efforts to inform audiences that the scandal had indeed been overblown or orchestrated (e.g. Sykes-Davis, SHD: 335) continually
ran the performative risk of simply drawing further attention to an affair which they were invested in claiming was no affair at all.

* a decade following the departure of MacCabe for Strathclyde, another affair exploded in Cambridge, with the
ultimately unsuccessful attempt to deny the university from awarding an honorary doctorate to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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