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SUMMER

30th June


take it. Publishers are making a mint out of academic journals in the so-called science, medical and technical sector and yet academics receive no payment and, more than this, authors have to sign over their copyright in order to make it into these prestigious tomes. When academic work catches the eye of journalists or if a TV company needs an 'expert' for their film there is rarely any thought that there might be some payment for this service. With the exception of the BBC that does pay a fee for broadcast material, commercial media companies view academics as the providers of free insight regardless of how hard won those insights might be.

Despite all this I don't mind being ridiculed for being an academic writer. It's worth it. Those who champion common sense are more often than not defending a kind of moral cannibalism. There is what Martin Amis calls the "obscenification of everyday life" in which sensation and exposé fill column inches with salacious reading pleasures. Equally, there is tabloid prurience that revels in exposing weakness, consuming stars and indulging its readers in what William Hazlitt called the "pleasures of hating". We live in a culture where voices are desperately shouting - we speak too quickly before listening. This too is compounded by a fascination with disclosure, confession, revelation. Reading the 'red top' headlines on the train each morning I feel like shouting at the people behind those quivering pages - "I am an academic, get me out of here". Gustav Flaubert once

 


wrote: "I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it". I can't help but feel that not much has changed since he wrote these words in 1872.

So, in contrast, the quiet, careful pursuit of obscure things is all the more precious to me. John Berger once wrote that writers, story tellers, and by extension, academics, are "death's secretaries". I think he meant that writing is about keeping a record and producing a kind of register of life. Here listening with humility might for a moment eclipse the injunction to talk, to narrate, to be noticed. People want to be heard but they don't really want to listen. I think it is within listening that we can find a different kind of ethics, a commitment to democracy and public life. I think this is where academic disciplines - particularly in the social sciences - can play a modest role. The value of academic writing is in the attention it pays to the arcane or otherwise glossed over aspects of life that would otherwise be lost in the cacophony of contemporary culture.

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4 July