Monday, January 24, 2011

Have our intellectuals gone to the blogs?

Over at the Kiwipolitico blog Pablo has asked his readers to draw up a 'short list' of 'young New Zealand intellectuals who represent the future of progressive thought in New Zealand'. I'm flattered to see that several of the contributors to the discussion thread underneath Pablo's article have included me in their short lists (let's face it: as an increasingly bald, rather pot-bellied chap in his mid-thirties, I have to be delighted to be placed under any heading which includes the adjective 'young').

Pablo and a number of the commenters at Kiwipolitico seem to believe that young left-wing intellectuals are a little thin on the ground in New Zealand, but I'm not sure if this is quite the case. I don't think there is any shortage of clever young people with left-wing opinions in New Zealand: the problem, as far as I can tell, is that it is hard for these young people to relate their scholarly research and their theorising to the world of quotidian politics.

New Zealand has never been a centre of world revolution, but in our benighted era the lack of a strong labour movement, the absence of a coherent left-wing presence in parliament, and the near-total lack of interesting thinking on the right all help make Kiwi politics a particularly dour and philistine affair.

Students and young autodidacts may do all sorts of interesting research, and develop all sorts of interesting concepts, but the possibilities for applying their work in the real world are few. If they get jobs as analysts in the trade unions or for parties like Labour or the Greens they inevitably have to trim their sails and become glorified publicists, producing extended press releases rather than original thinking. They may gravitate towards the groupuscules of the far left, but these outfits are continually struggling simply to put out skinny newspapers and hold regular branch meetings, and so cannot possibly give much time to serious intellectual work. The journals dedicated to the refinement of Marxist theory and the impassioned arguments about the ideas of heavy-duty philosophers like Althusser and Gramsci which characterised the Kiwi far left in the '70s, when groups like the Socialist Action League had many hundreds of members, seem almost unimaginable today.

It does seem as though a lot of Kiwi left-wing intellectuals have to choose, to quote WB Yeats, between 'the life and the work'. Either they beaver away at their research, producing texts which are admired by their peers but are nonetheless too sophisticated and too 'unrealistic' to have much political impact, or else they sacrifice the intellectual stuff and go into propaganda.

Back when I was hanging around the Sociology Department at the University of Auckland I used to associate the bald choice that left-wing intellectuals face in New Zealand with two senior members of staff.

Ian Carter, who was given the unfortunate task of supervising my PhD, and later prolonged his sufferings by helping me to turn it into a book, had moved amongst the British left-wing intelligentsia during the glory days of the 1970s, rubbing shoulders with giants like EP Thompson and Raphael Samuel, and - perhaps less gloriously, in retrospect - working on a text called The Red Paper on Scotland with the young Gordon Brown. Ian had come to New Zealand as, in his own words, a "refugee from Thatcherism", and had eventually withdrawn from most political activity. Instead of marching down the street or selling papers outside factory gates, he had produced a series of wonderful books which analyse the history of various features of Western culture - the novel, radio broadcasting, and even model railways - in relation to the development of capitalism. Ian's books are a pleasure to read, and have a lot to teach us, but they are not the sort of works which are going to get crowds onto the barricades.

Dave Bedggood was a long-term member of the Sociology Department who had made a very different choice to that of Ian. He had produced one acclaimed and influential scholarly study of New Zealand society in the late '70s, but had not really delivered anything approaching a sequel. After the early '80s, when he became heavily involved involved in New Zealand's Trotskyist movement, Dave had prioritised the difficult and time-consuming business of political agitation and party-building over scholarly work. Dave can look back with pride on his involvement in many great political struggles, from the 1981 Springbok Tour to the anti-war movement of the early noughties, and he can justly claim to have influenced a generation of activists on the far left. I can't help wondering, though, what fine books, what masterpieces of scholarship and theory, Dave might he have written, if he had forsaken political activism in favour of intellectual work. (In fairness, I should note that Dave has in recent years published a magisterial essay on the history of Auckland and its relation to the history of New Zealand, and an important, courageous study of youth suicide. These two texts are amongst the very best things he has ever produced, and show that he still has a lot to say.)

I don't think either Ian or Dave can be faulted for the choices they made. I have the greatest respect for both men. What is sad is that it is so hard for left-wing intellectuals in New Zealand to avoiding choosing between activism and scholarship, between 'the life' and 'the work'.

Perhaps I'm being romantic, but I think that thoughtful yet accessible blogs like Kiwipolitico can play a role in reconnecting the left, and perhaps even the wider public, with scholarship and intellectual debate, by swimming against the tide of philistinism and cynicism which characterises contemporary Kiwi politics, and contemporary Kiwi society in general. With their minimal overheads, potentially wide dissemination, and provision for democratic interaction and debate, blogs may be able to fill some of the gap left by the disappearance of the well-resourced, wide-circulation left-wing papers and journals of the past.

It is interesting to note that some of the most influential young intellectuals on the British left are known primarily as bloggers. Richard Seymour, who runs the avowedly Marxist and very popular blog Lenin's Tomb, Laurie Penny, a leader of the recent massive student protests who blogs for the New Statesman, and Owen Hatherley, who politicises subjects like modernist architecture and the music of Pulp on his wonderfully-titled site Nasty Brutalist and Short, all seem to be acting as intermediaries between the world of theory and the world of left-wing and trade union activism. These bloggers popularise and extend previously-obscure ideas and provoke debates. Their articles for 'offline' journals and their books often start life as blog posts, and therefore benefit from the input of blog readers. I see a possible local parallel to the likes of Seymour and Hatherley in the work of bloggers like Matthew Dentith, the University of Auckland PhD student in philosophy who has become a high-profile, indefatigable debunker of conspiracy theories and other forms of irrationalism; Mike Beggs, the Aussie-based Kiwi who popularises Marxist crisis theory, explaining why it is relevant to our day and age; Tim Bowron and Daphne Lawless, two Marxists who are, bless their souls, as interested in literature as in political economy; Giovanni Tiso, who brings a special knowledge of Mediterranean intellectual history to his meditations on New Zealand society; Bryce Edwards, who somehow manages to combine a full-time academic job with a prolific blog; and the group of very young but very clever Canterbury University students who have set up the site Kea and Cattle.

Is it possible that the new breed of blogging intellectuals might help to restore communications between the realm of scholarship and the realm of action, and thereby improve the quality of both the intellectual and the political life of this country?

Footnote: one of the commenters at Kiwipolitico has complained that 'almost all' of the young left-wing intellectuals and bloggers being discussed there 'fit into the middle class professional (and particularly academic) category'. I think there is a tendency, amongst both the general public and New Zealand's mainstream left and right, to assume that the terms 'intellectual' and 'academic' always overlap. They do not. An intellectual is someone with a passion for ideas and research and an interest in connecting his or her own ideas and research to society and social problems.

As Richard Taylor has often noted at this blog, in the 1960s and '70s many of New Zealand's most influential left-wing intellectuals were the product of the 'working class university' of this country's railway workshops and its union movement. The tradition of working class autodidacticism which Richard celebrates was badly damaged by the deindustrialisation of New Zealand in the '80s and '90s, but there is no reason why it cannot revive in a different form in the future, especially with the new tools for research and communication provided by the internet.

The increasing commercialisation of the university in the twenty-first century, and the need of academics to publish more and more specialised research at a faster and faster rate in a proliferating number of little-read journals, means that there are arguably fewer active intellectuals than ever inside the so-called 'Ivory Tower'.

Some of the left-wing bloggers and writers I mentioned, like Richard Seymour, have PhDs, and some of them publish work through academic presses, but few of them actually have full-time academic jobs. At least some of them seem to see such jobs, with their huge workloads and restricted foci, as inimical to genuine intellectual work. This attitude reminds me of EP Thompson's decision to quit, after a few short years, the prestigious job that had been created especially for him at a British university. Thompson explained his decision with the words 'I can't get any research done here'...


Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Scott,

I agree that the blog makes a good intermediary between the Academy and the Street -- in theory, at least, it can steer between the Alexandrian over-refinements (and entrenched power-structures) of the former and the simplistic bellowings (and over-dependence on a muzzled news media) of the latter.

"Subjective and trivial" are the presumptive labels attributed to most blogs, though - breaking through that perception is, I think, the real problem. If a blog simply works as an extension of the street or the academy it helps it gain an audience, but doesn't achieve any of this cultivation of the middle ground you're talking about.

8:33 am  
Blogger AHD said...

Hi Maps,

Thanks for the mention! Although you put in the wrong URL for the link, pointing it to rather than

I think you're right: quality blogging steps into the breach where left-wing newspapers or quality campus newspapers would have once stood. At Canterbury, 'Canta' is a joke: it's basically just people writing in trolling letters and the articles aren't much better. It was that, more than anything, that frustrated us into making a locally-influenced blog: where are the literary pages? Where are the cultural analyses? The Press is more interested in lost kittens.

And one of the great things about your blog is that you receive quality comment from regular readers. You also receive trolls aplenty, but that's really a testament to your status and quality of your argument: would people bother trolling if they could actually present a reasonable counter-argument?

9:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like ALL Sarah's enemies you are just spreading EVIL AND LIES.

Seconds after your death you will know the truth of the God you mock.

10:05 am  
Blogger pollywog said...

re: new young american leftists

Jodi Dean at... well worth a read.

Her work on communicative capitalism as it relates to disempowering the left voice is particularly relevent

10:24 am  
Blogger Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Thanks for the endorsement, Scott. Maybe it's my stunning youthful looks which confuse all and sundry, but as someone who is turning thirty-four this year, I suspect I share the same amusement as you for being considered "young."

2:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

heh...mike beggs has been out of action...back in the 70s we have peeople who dropped 'in' and 'out' like that...

9:59 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

and richard taylor is still a maoist...he made a maoist comment 3 days ago...

9:59 pm  
Blogger Sandra said...

Good food for thought once again Maps. I've tendered some response here:

An aside, though relevant to the battle for engagement, have you read Bill Pearson's Coal Flat?

10:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I agree somewhat Maps.
While I am interested in ideas generating and spreading outside the university such as The Railway Workshops as you mentioned (metaphorically correct) I also support and very much respect traditional Universities. Both my daughters have University degrees, my father had a Masters in Architecture, his brother my uncle was had a Masters in Ag. Science and was a research scientist in plant pathology etc (he worked for some year in what was then called the DSIR at Mt Albert, then he managed a Chemical Company), my other uncle on my mothers; side was also an architect, my mother should have done a Uni Degree...and would have loved to pursue music, one sister has a BA, my brother a BSc, I also have a University degree (BA) which you keep forgetting about when you call me an autodidact.......

.......but I'm not a Smithyman - he was a very bright old polymathic old bugger [With a BA? I think he had at least that as he was tutor for years] (and he sat in the Uni teaching and baffling and befuddling the minds of young students for years until someone noticed he was there (they heard someone muttering in pidgeon German about some mad philosopher and about birds and art and poetics and Te Kooti and so on... a kind of autodidact [but is anyone completely either auto- or other didactic?] inside the tradition, or hiding inside the ivy covered halls and inside the Groves of Academe so to speak)) and I also have an Engineering Certificate through what were once Technical Institutes...I am NOT an autodidact...unless we all are..lets face it...what you should be rounding on is that we can all become "intellectuals" or not as the case may be...we can all learn now in the age of Wikipedia (and indeed in these times of many libraries and many books and other way to learn)...I use that all the time...and Google and YouTube...but I still read books!

Blogs do have a significant place in the new age of cyberspace etc

You and Jack Ross and so of those you mentioned here are young enough to be included...

I however, as well as having a mind too much like an enormous ice cream, am very old!!! Older than you and Jack! And my Blog seems to have ground to a halt it doesn't want to BE anymore but it may get any case most people probably quite rightly find it puerile meaningless...

No ideas there to save the coherent ideas at all really...

But there are as many young intellectual (and other - we don't have to all be intellectual: maybe we should just keep open minds and keep being curious) people as ever ... we are perhaps in a lull right now (as far as political activism etc goes)...things are perhaps more complex than when I was young. Then many things were better and many were not! I still have hope - just. I believe in universities and outside universities: many ways to kill the cat.

11:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Talking of Herr Smithyman - when I was at Uni briefly in 1968 he was my tutor (as you and many others have heard forever!) - now when I wrote one of my essays (it was about a comparison of a poem by Eliot and one by Yeats - and how they were modern or contemporary or whatever) his comments and "crossings out" etc in the margin were extensive - but I noticed the other day that I had referenced quite a lot to 'Mr. Stead' as I was quoting from his (C.K. Stead's) book 'The New Poetic'.

But each time I had written "Mr. Stead" he had changed it (with red ink and his fine squiggle and the "Mr." crossed out) to "Professor Stead". Very emphatic he was...Stead was no "Mr.", he was "Professor", in a time when, unless we knew a person very very well, we never addressed adults by their first names but as Mr Jones and Mrs. Smith etc. (Mr. Smithyman then used students second names when talking to them...this was common in those days BTW although it slowly "weakened" as a practice from about that time on).

11:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

'Blogger HORansome said...

Thanks for the endorsement, Scott. Maybe it's my stunning youthful looks which confuse all and sundry, but as someone who is turning thirty-four this year, I suspect I share the same amusement as you for being considered "young."'

Your still an infant - wait 'till you get to 63 - then we can allow you to be amused.

11:46 pm  
Blogger Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

If I'm still considered a "young" intellectual at 63, Richard, then we're all in trouble.

10:54 am  
Blogger Megan Clayton said...

While I appreciate that this is a post which makes a broad rhetorical sweep, I will note that there are ways to be a left-wing intellectual and to write online that are smaller in scale than being simultaneously on the blogs, in the academic press and on the streets. I would suggest, for example, that the professional face of the unions need not always be of day-to-day concern for those of us active in our various branches. Even if the messages to the media tend soft-pedalling and labour-lite, there are still change proposals to be contested, jobs to be saved and members to be rallied on the ground. This is a struggle in which, as the far left regularly notes, we are much constrained by current employment law, but for those of us who can stomach working with the options available to us, it is a struggle worth having.

Likewise blogging. Leftist thought persists not only in broad-brush historical and sociological analysis but in aesthetics, in cultural studies and in consistent, persistent accounting for the settings in which we find ourselves. In between the rallies, the strikes and the timely grand gestures, there is still a record to make and it is of no less value, to my mind, for being small in scale and modest in tone. From close reading to cultural context is a world of intention and political commitment and if such writing requires attentive seeking out, it is no less of the left for it.

PBRF will go, ideally sooner but definitely later, and will eventually I believe be a footnote in the history of impediments to academic freedom. In the meantime it's a union battle as well as an academic battle, one which I hope need not be one by attrition.

10:57 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"Subjective and trivial" are the presumptive labels attributed to most blogs, though - breaking through that perception is, I think, the real problem

Not at all. Just don't write things that are trivial and people will read them. As for the subjective part, why, but it's one of the best features of the medium. There is some tremendously perceptive and accomplished autobiographical writing on the New Zealand blogosphere that is sometimes overlty woven with the political (Megan Clayton aka Harvest Bird), sometimes not (Robyn Gallagher) but rates in any case amongst the finest things you will read. And I hardly need to point out that "subjective" isn't, or at any rate ought not to be, a dirty word when it comes to making theory either.

12:36 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I agree with Jack that blogs do have a credibility gap in some circles, but I think this gap exists because of what too many bloggers try to do, and try to claim for blogging.

With the withering of traditional media, and in particular of newspapers, there's a tendency, especially on the right, to celebrate blogs as some sort of new form of 'citizens' journalism' free of the impediments of large insitutions and free of notions of 'objectivity'.

The reality is, though, that even a large aggregate of blogs can never replace a well-resourced newspaper full of trained journalists. With its rampant subjectivism, lack of research, and generally slapdash quality, 'news' blogging is no better than the tabloid parody of journalism which is increasingly overtaking our newspapers (the New Zealand Herald is surely the latest victim). Left 'news' blogs are as bad as those of the right - whether you look at Tumeke or No Right Turn or Kiwiblog, what you get are regurgigated headlines mixed with grunts of ideological disgust or pleasure. But I've said all this before...

I think that the medium of blogging is actually best-suited not to a parody of 24/7 news, but to more thoughtful, intellectual work which takes time to prepare and time to digest. At the moment too much research is done in obscurity, and published in obscurity. Even when scholarly or theoretical work gets wide attention, the work often seems to have come from nowhere or, rather, to have emerged wholly formed from its author's head.

I think that blogging provides a way for people doing research and developing ideas to include the wider community in what they are doing. When they are doing politically-flavoured work which has an application in organisations like, say, trade unions, then the sort of inclusiveness and popularisation which blogs makes possible is perhaps even more important.

Harvestbird is of course quite right when she says I parody the research work which gets done for unions. I've done paid resarch for unons myself over the years, so I shouldn't have quite so dismissive of the practice!

1:08 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:32 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

heh...richard taylor still doesn't know SAL means...

3:22 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous herb said...

heh...richard taylor still doesn't know SAL means... "

Please, please, tell me: tell me herb, please do! Oh! I am all ears...

8:24 pm  
Blogger Urban-Kupesi said...

some of you dudes are crazy talking...I think blogs are just as you mentioned maps...for developing ideas in the hope that your ideas are interesting enough for people to disagree or agree....

10:20 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home