Barthes, anti-intellectualism, and the academy
In this paper the UK university system is conceptualised as an institutional space that has been transformed to become a resolute, functional haven of anti-intellectualism. This argument is qualified by adopting an understanding of intellectual work that is taken from Roland Barthes, where the intellectual is somebody who works against, outside, or at the margins of established frameworks of thinking, and where an intellectually driven organisation would be a place which openly permits if not encourages such behaviour. The broader political consequences of such a transition in which anti-intellectualism has become rampant in the academy are considered in light of how Barthes understood the rise of populism in 1950s France.
Anti-intellectualism is a historical myth, linked no doubt to the rise of the petit-bourgeoisie. Not long ago, Poujade gave this myth its crudest form (“the fish rots from the head down”). Such an indictment can periodically excite the gallery…yet its political danger must not be overlooked: it is quite simply fascism, whose first objective always and everywhere is to liquidate the intellectual class. (Barthes, 1974/1986a: 343)
This paper is not your usual defence of intellectual work, or of the necessity of the university as its home. Although the argument will be made that today’s university is underpinned by anti-intellectual practices – the possibility that intellectual life in the broader, more radical sense, might ever find a home there, remains in question.
The argument that intellectuals are under threat and anti-intellectualism has become rampant is an old one. It can be found in Barthes’ analysis of the challenge of populism in mid-twentieth century France. In the 1950s, Barthes first wrote about the rise of Pierre Poujade, who transformed himself in a short space of time from a small-time businessman (he owned a book and stationary store), to become a successful French populist politician and leader of a movement known as Poujadism. Poujade was an early mentor to Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his politics might be viewed as a precursor to today’s far right populisms (see Wampole, 2016). The fear among defenders of today’s establishment appears similar: the rise of populism together with a growing suspicion of the intellectual will imperil the institutions of representative democracy. The intellectual is here figured as a representative of the establishment, as a kind of expert, a person who is qualified to speak the truth and guide the populace. If the function of the expert is denied – either by outright dismissal, or simply by being drowned out by other, louder voices – then democracy is under threat and politics gives way to unreason.
Some of the complaints that Barthes himself makes in the above quote will feel familiar then, namely his argument that populism presents a challenge to the survival of the intellectual class, if not to representative democracy itself. But there is an important clarifier to Barthes’ case which raises it above more ordinary complaints. And it is for this reason that his analysis might still offer some kind of insight, or a set of tools to think with. When Barthes suggests a liquidation of the intellectual class might be the consequence of, or at least an accompaniment to, the rise of fascism, he has a very specific kind of intellectual activity in mind. This will be elaborated below, but suffice to say most of what one might think of as intellectual activity today will not meet its threshold. Briefly, Barthes’ intellectual operates as an erosive presence within the educated classes: ‘the intellectual’s function is to criticise bourgeois language within the bourgeoisie’s very regnum’ (1974/1986a: 343). The implication of his analysis, at least for the purposes of this paper, is this: much of the activity of today’s so-called intellectual institutions, and the corporate university in particular, will not qualify, and might indeed be placed on the side of the anti-intellectualisms its representatives may otherwise bemoan. This leads to the second crucial element in the above quote, which is Barthes’ argument that anti-intellectualism is a historical myth linked to the rise of the petit bourgeoisie. By myth, Barthes means a powerful semiotic system which organises thought and perception, and as such can travel, and may well have strayed into the assumed strongholds of intellectual life. Myth functions by making contingent (and otherwise objectionable) formations appear natural, and in the terms of this paper, could make anti-intellectual habits appear as natural features of university life, or if not natural, at least mundane, or ordinary.
When attempting to understand what, exactly, has gone wrong with the rise of populism and the so-called crisis of expertise, it is always much easier to place the blame at the door of those who are not members of the intellectual elite. It is far more difficult to point the finger a little higher up, so to speak, and level it at the establishment from which the intellectual emerges. More typically the establishment will be criticised for failing to uphold its high standards, for allowing those standards to slip, or for its imperfections, which may, as such, be remedied. In the last analysis, the establishment, and its educational arm in particular – its schools, colleges, and universities – will be seen as the last foothold of more open democratic values (see, for instance, contributions recently collected by Haynes and Suissa, 2022). To fight fascism on the street is the resort of those who can barely be distinguished from it (or so respectable opinion might believe), whereas the securest way of defeating fascist, authoritarian, or totalitarian tendencies in political life is by cultivating intellectual values of measured debate, that is to say, by developing a set of manners that will override their reductive logics. This is one reason why so much concern is expressed by defenders of higher democratic principles when governments such as those operating in Britain interfere in school curricula and appeal to populism by bringing the so-called ‘culture wars’ into the classroom (see Joseph-Salisbury, 2020; Mohdin, 2020). This is seen as the not-too-thin end of the wedge, as another example of the inner and ongoing decay of the polity.
Yet it would be a mistake to believe that today’s schools and universities are otherwise in a healthy condition and are well-positioned to resist such decay. In Britain, schools and universities do not mirror the democratic society they are expected to prepare individuals for. They are already infused with some of the operating principles of totalitarian government. A keen observer might very well take their pick when looking for examples. But at a very basic level, these institutions are increasingly ‘totalised’ to the extent they are driven by targets that are not of their own making. These include the many league tables now in existence, measuring ‘satisfaction’ and so-called ‘excellence’ in its various forms, as well as other prescribed tasks, like monitoring for ‘extremism’ (under the Prevent legislation), and serving as an arm of the UK border force by superintending and sharing attendance records (Topping, 2014). Educational institutions have, indeed, developed a whole set of exacting and prescriptive mechanisms to make sure that all aspects of educational life are governed by and oriented toward externally set goals which become internally driven aspirations, and education professionals have become adept at operationalising them. Indeed, one of their lasting contributions is to lend this entire system professional recognition and esteem, to treat grubbing institutional mechanics as deserving of serious, attentive concern, and to soothe over their rough edges with the characteristic, polite opportunism of an educated elite. The necessity of having the targets themselves, and of having an entire institutional mechanism enslaved to them, has proved to be difficult to challenge, at least in practical terms. There have been numerous scholarly challenges, of course, which carefully anatomise the various problems facing higher education internationally (see, for instance, Butler and Spoelstra, 2014; Kallio et al., 2016; Knights and Clarke, 2014; Ratle et al., 2020; Roumbanis, 2019). Among such voices, Craig Brandist has perhaps raised the stakes a little further, arguing across a series of articles for the Times Higher Education (2014, 2016, 2020; see also Brandist, 2017) that UK universities more and more resemble Soviet-style command economies in their operations and their internal cultures:
Senior management intervenes to ensure that key targets are met (podmen in Russian), issuing guidelines and “key performance indicators” to motivate staff (melochnaia opeika: micromanagement). Members of staff respond by ingratiating themselves with their superiors (blat), and cover for each other in order to defend themselves from scrutiny (krugovaia porukha: esprit de corps). Individual staff evaluations, reports to funding bodies and departmental or team reports are routinely padded with superfluous detail to illustrate that objectives have been met and plans have been realised (pripiska). The aim is to dazzle the reader with superficial show (pokazukha) in order to distract attention from failures (ochkovtiratel’stvo: literally eye-wiping, perhaps best rendered as eyewash or camouflage). (Brandist, 2016)
Brandist is not entirely alone in making such claims. For instance, McCann et al. (2020) have repeated the claim that the direction of governance within the UK sector has been ‘towards neo-Stalinist organizing principles’ (431). These are, of course, still difficult arguments to strike home. It is hard to shake the assumption that totalitarianism can surely have no foothold in the university sector, however troubling some managerial developments may be.
Figuring the university
Whenever the metaphor of the ‘ivory tower’ is invoked, the university is still presumed to be the home of the intellectual, the place where intellectuals grow and develop, and where some of them remain to become lecturers and eventually professors in their respective disciplines. The notion prevails that academics must still largely exist in a state of repose, gently cogitating on the world around them, and sometimes teaching a little too. When the academic is represented in television dramas (even at their most satirical – see Channel 4’s Campus), this idea of the contemplative life is reproduced. On television the academic is more likely to appear in an oak-panelled office with stained glass windows than an open-plan office resembling a call centre (which would be closer to the truth). As anyone who works in such places will know, these are not ivory towers, at least not as they are commonly imagined. The picture of the contemplative academic is for many university workers entirely misplaced, even if, in some respects, it remains something many academics will yearn for. Take, for instance, the popularity of ‘slow scholarship’, critiqued by Mendick (2014) and Vorstal (2021).
Meanwhile the university has been morphed into a peculiar kind of business, offering a set of services and experiences, with academics employed as its service providers, administrators, and managers. The university is driven before all else by its public image, which is why internal critics may well be threatened by a contractual clause against bringing their employer into disrepute. There are some odd tweaks to the logic of business, of course, with the customers, in this case students, both judged by their service providers (via assessments), and also penalised for poor attendance (via attendance monitoring). This is a business model in which the organisation both ‘entertains’ and punishes its punters, and as such the setup of today’s punitive university-business might be considered derivative of the medieval university, which adopted from the guild the idea of an organisation that has ‘the authority to determine its own membership’, and from the monastery the idea of a self-governing community that makes its own rules and determines its own punishments (Carr, 1997: 318). These ideas survive in a severely attenuated form in the business model of today’s university, where students are pandered to in satisfaction surveys, and yet still positioned fairly low within the institutional hierarchy. Meanwhile, academics themselves are oddly positioned as needing to both respond to reputational demands (and ensure high-student satisfaction as measured by local and national surveys, for instance), whilst carrying on the intellectual life of the institution in their teaching, scholarship, and research.
In what follows, the effects of this kind of climate will be considered in terms of their anti-intellectual consequences, using Barthes’ analysis of Pierre Poujade to frame the analysis. It is hoped that resort to an old diagnosis of an old problem, will offer a fresh perspective on a set of difficulties, the situation of today’s academy, that has become all too familiar as an object of criticism. Alongside Poujade’s attacks on the mainstream media and the establishment, Poujade wrote against intellectuals, presenting a series of indictments against them that Barthes goes on to examine. What is striking about Barthes’ anatomisation of Poujade’s position, is that when he describes Poujade’s thinking, he offers a critique that may still, with adjustment, be applied to the intellectual climate of today’s corporate university.
For the Poujadist, first of all, it is important that the challenges a society might face are simplified, that they are pared back to a few unquestionable fundamentals. This is the plain-speaking allure of the populist politician who at last speaks straightforwardly and to the point and calls things ‘what they are’. One way in which this kind of attitude can be applied to the university is to state a few ‘home truths’ that academics may still be reluctant to acknowledge. This is the language of the academic manager who confronts recalcitrant peers with the (presumed to be inexorable) reality of their situation in the form of economic forecasts and pie charts showing where the money comes from and how the institution swallows it up. The implication is that those working within a UK university must realise that the organisation has in effect been semi-privatised (i.e. it is no longer chiefly funded by government) and the sooner academics realise where their wage comes from, and what the prosperity of their employer depends upon, the better. This is undoubtedly a truism (even if it elides their legal status as charities) insofar as it identifies the chief source of income (typically, student fees), but it also enforces an acceptance of the current financial situation of the university sector that extends its evaluative consequences throughout the rest of the organisation. That is to say, ultimately, all activities must be rendered cost-effective. The logic is clear, and the reduction of rival understandings of what the university may be for is unflinching in its brutalism: the university is no longer ‘just’ a public institution serving public goods, and it would be naïve to think otherwise. If the university is to survive (and prosper), academics must become reconciled to the fact that it is also a business.
This would be an example of the kind of simplifying argument Barthes associates with Poujadist politics – it sets a baseline of expectations, a raw starting point for all subsequent thought which also serves as a limit upon what one might hope for. Barthes explains this attitude in light of Poujade’s petit bourgeois origins. For the petit bourgeois (presumed by both Barthes and Poujade to be a man), this simplifying attitude provides a kind of reassurance, a feeling (however false) of security. The petit bourgeois outlook seeks the reassurance of a world that has been made ‘to the measure of his own commerce’ (Barthes, 1957/2012a: 92). Its reality, writes Barthes, is perhaps ‘the narrowest any society has been able to define’. It seeks to ‘posit simple equalities between what is seen and what is’. This means there can be no hidden truths, no surprises, because nothing lies behind the plain reality that has been identified and named. Such an outlook finds itself in a world so well ordered that it is ‘without stages, without transition, and without progression’ (93). That is to say, a Poujadist politics conjures a world that lacks the means to alter its course (or even imagine itself doing so).
Within the university sector, the terror this scheme sets in train should not be underestimated. The reduction of the university to its economic base, to a balance sheet level of reality, is the principle of truth which will always prefigure (and arm) any interdict, or even casual remark, a manager can make. It is not necessary to be a brute at all, in this kind of system, although brutish managers will at times still find a home here.
To achieve the first aim, that of simplifying things, the Poujadist must pursue a second aim, that of downgrading the intellect. The Poujadist must attack that variant of the intellect which always overcomplicates things that should be straightforward, which somehow manages to disturb what should be believed and followed, and instinctively attacks all common-sense notions, and works to undermine all attempts to stabilise and condition opinion. All this must be dismissed, and the intellect be replaced by a new, pared-back form of reason.
As Barthes (1957/2012a) writes: ‘Monsieur Poujade dispenses with all the techniques of the intelligence, asserting petit bourgeois “reason” against the dreams and sophisms of academics and intellectuals discredited by their mere position outside a computable reality’ (93). It is in this sense that Poujade once declared (and Barthes quotes): ‘France is stricken with an overproduction of men with diplomas, polytechnicians, economists, philosophers and other dreamers who have lost all contact with the real world’ (93).
When Poujade offers his substitute term for the intellect, he calls it ‘reason’. What he means by this is that only things that can be counted will be considered. Effectively, ‘every human phenomenon, even every mental one, exists only in terms of quantity’ (Barthes, 1957/2012b: 208). Consequently, anything that cannot be quantified, that cannot be pinned down is by definition useless, at best decorative. The university matches fairly well to this logic, where a student can only progress according to learning outcomes that have been pre-defined and explicitly stated, and an academic can only gain institutional support for intellectual activities that can be recorded according to a set of pre-established metrics, or presented in terms of anticipated outcomes. It would be inconceivable, for instance, for an academic to ask for an expanse of time to explore an intellectual problem that had no defined output or goal, where the academic in question wished to leave that unstated, to see what might happen, to remain open to the unpredictable, to lend an ear to what cannot or at least has not yet been determined.
The drive to downgrade the intellect, or at least turn from intellectual work to other matters, is sometimes pursued quite deliberately. Academics who opt for the management path and rise up within the organisation to become faculty leads, deans, deputy vice chancellors, and so on, give up their academic careers in order to rule over the careers of others. Many would freely admit that this was their trade-off. Something had to give, and that something was their research. This becomes the story of their sacrifice, it is the ‘burden’ they carry to have given up so much. And yet, I suspect comparatively few would agree they had already dispensed with their intelligences long before that point, by submitting themselves to organisational demands felt lower down the pecking order just as badly, if not worse.
Redefinition of work
When the intellect is downgraded, it is treated like any other form of labour and can be managed by similar means. Any intellectual activity that still travels beyond what can be quantified ‘can no longer be defined as work’ (Barthes, 1957/2012b: 208). Barthes argues that here indeed ‘appears a theme dear to all strong regimes: the identification of intellectuality with idleness; the intellectual is by definition lazy’ (208). This seems to be the operating assumption of university workload planning. It is designed, as Barthes writes, to ‘convert an activity [that of the intellect] which can be measured only by its harmful excess into a concrete labour, i.e., accessible to Poujadist measurement’ (209). Staff time within the university is increasingly quantified and thereby micromanaged. An academic’s responsibilities (which have tended to multiply so that the academic is part manager, part publicist, part administrator, and so on), are divided into tasks, and these tasks are allocated hours, so that the working year of the academic can be fairly well accounted for. This is often done with the consent, if not collusion of academics themselves, who wish to have as much of their role itemised as possible to avoid further work being foisted upon them and show one another just how un-lazy they are. Taken overall, these developments are decidedly anti-intellectual, insofar as intellectual work that seeks to exceed and think beyond established frameworks cannot survive if it is at every moment expected to be answerable to them. Indeed, Barthes argues that this tendency to define all labour as only that which can be quantified, betrays an essentially muscular ideology; where the head is suspect insofar as the brain is not a muscle, and is liable to atrophy and corruption (hence, ‘fish rot from the head down’, as Poujade would say). Evident here is a complete reorganisation of intellectual activity, where being active becomes a sign of thinking, of commitment to academic work, and appearing inactive, which was once the characteristic trait of scholarly repose, is associated with laziness or at least a poor or not particularly efficient use of time. Those disciplines that involve demonstrable research activities – disciplines with labs or research subjects – will find it much easier to present their work as muscular action, than those that are largely confined within the head.
Suspicion of language
Finally, Barthes (1957/2012b) claims that at the basis of all anti-intellectualism is a ‘suspicion of language’ (207). This suspicion arises because ‘language specifically jeopardizes the assurance of a world which arrogantly sets “realities” against “words’’’ (Barthes, 1974/1986a: 343). The problem with intellectuals, effectively, is that they think too much, they have become distant, consumed in their preoccupation with language. Poujade’s rejection of the intellectual is based on the idea that, as ‘a being of language’, what the intellectual produces is at best a ‘futile décor of humanity’s more substantial interests’ (343). At worst, the cultured outlook of the academic, their production of decorative but inoperable ideas, is a kind of disease, an unnecessary activity that the university (and the tax paying public), can no longer afford. This rejection, if not diminishment, of a kind of culture that remains carefully removed from computational thinking is, writes Barthes, ‘the specific symptom of all fascisms’ (1957/2012a: 95). The recent drive in Britain to get rid of ‘low value’ degrees, and the disproportionate effect of this on the humanities, would be an example of that (see Adams, 2022).
Yet the Poujadist claim that intellectuals are on the side of language, and that they escape (narrowly configured) realities because of it, would be largely misplaced if it was aimed at today’s university. Although many who are confronted with academic writing for the first time might consider it difficult, or obscure, if not alienating, once the rules of academic writing have been learned, it is actually not that difficult to produce. If the rules of its writing are also the conditions of academic thinking, this level of predictability is surely problematic, if not an indictment against the kinds of thinking these spaces facilitate. Such levels of predictability surely help explain why the essay mills, selling work to students for a fee, have managed to thrive so well – their employees effectively write to a formula. Early indications suggest that AI-facilitated writing is already playing a significant role in the writing of research project applications, for instance. Artificial intelligence chatbots have already been deployed in writing papers too, which again tend to follow a fairly predictable format (Cotton et al., 2023).
The argument here, which takes aim at the stylistic predictability and comparative uniformity of academic writing, is not quite the same as arguing that research has become increasingly formulaic, overly incrementalistic, and risk adverse (see, for instance, Alvesson and Gabriel, 2013; Alvesson and Sandberg, 2014), although this is undoubtedly a problem too. Nor does this criticism have within view only the more standardised articles that some journals have come to promote, those which adopt a prescribed structure, or indeed the formulaic criteria that journals may impose on reviewers to structure their feedback and focus their judgement. And lastly, and conversely, this paper is not a call to experiment with other forms of writing, important as arguments for, say, polymorphic research (Alvesson and Gabriel, 2013) and writing differently within the ambit of the academic paper may be (for instance research that challenges the author function, in Benozzo et al., 2016). Rather, the purpose here is to draw attention to the persistence of the academic paper in its hegemonic form and take that form as symptomatic of the ‘health’ of the university as a thinking space. This is the still-ubiquitous form of the academic paper in which a problem is presented, dealt with, and concluded within a few thousand words, and so, is the form of argument that favours the treatment of graspable problems. There is a wider discipline of writing to be placed in question here then, involving, for instance, the artful cultivation of a careful balance between claiming something new but not overclaiming, or diligently citing and acknowledging indebtedness to others whilst demonstrating ‘originality’, or explaining the worth of an argument according to the ‘field’ it advances. These are all markers of professionalism in academic writing, and they function to condition how academics think. This broader discipline is so deeply built into the assumptions of academic writing it is barely considered in terms of its likely intellectual restraints. There are, too, a basic set of assumptions concerning the importance of assuring readability (before one’s peers) and being clear (to the exclusion of prevarication or the continuity of doubt) as well as tidy in one’s thinking. Academic writing also aims for ‘transparency’ in its own terms, and academics are often just as suspicious of obscurity as anyone else. This is why the writing of Barthes’ contemporaries – such as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault – will often still be considered obscure, as academics attempt to reproduce their ideas in ‘plainer’ language.
It is perhaps of some solace that when academic thinking is produced within all these constraints, the specific content of what academics write is ultimately irrelevant to the university, for indeed at this point the machinery of inspection, evaluation, and audit, lose interest. From an institutional perspective, the purpose of academic writing is largely to accumulate citations and thereby ‘esteem’. It is perhaps striking that even those who research topics directly relevant to the operation of the university (the history and politics of managerialism, for instance) will find that they have little or nothing to say in university meetings and boardrooms if their work is not repackaged in the form of practical suggestions and workable ideas. If they do speak, and if they fail to repackage their thinking, they will be rejected as ‘cranks’, or for being impractical, or for making the lives of others difficult with their interjections. This is how the academy further manages its intellectual environment. The university prefers ideas it can easily digest, ideas that produce little disturbance as they are expressed. There could be nothing plainer (or void of thought) than a university mission statement, strategic plan, or managerial briefing.
Against all of this, and to indicate the extent to which other writing cultures may have been driven out, it is worth briefly turning to how Barthes’ conceptualises the demand for clarity and plainness, which in many disciplines is the hallmark of academic expression. Academic writing is much closer, in form, to what Barthes calls speech, in that its demand for (1) ‘a certain speed of delivery’ (or pace of argument), and (2) its requirement that speaking must observe an articulatory logic which ‘binds each point of the sentence to what immediately follows or precedes’ (which in terms of the academic paper means an argument that does not jump about, but develops gradually and in a manner that is duly restrained by the demand to tie up all connections), results in (3) a pursuit of clarity that is to the ‘banishment of polysemy’ (Barthes, 1971/1977: 191). Barthes argues that speech (and writing which follows its logic) ‘serves the Law – all speech is on the side of the Law’ (191), and is, thereby, a domesticated form. Intriguingly, in another essay Barthes suggests that bourgeois literature too is a form of ‘printed speech’ (Barthes, 1974/1986b: 154). Presumably this owes to the form of the conventional and commercially successful novel in particular, which is enslaved to the idea of connectedness, which is delivered in the form of a fully articulated narrative with each sentence bound to what immediately follows or precedes, and desires above all else to be understood, which means easily followed along lines that are already known, that are familiar, secure, and comforting. Academic writing owes little to the bourgeois novel, but it does seem to share some of these characteristics, which are to be found in its diligent pedestrianism, its demand that all points of an argument articulate, and its expectation that a paper is delivered in ways that will be easily understood, that will be predictably familiar in terms of its respective disciplinary norms.
Given the amount of work that has been done exploring the plight of intellectual life since Barthes wrote about the dangers of Poujadism, work that has naturally addressed a set of political developments he could not anticipate, work investigating how audit, marketisation, and managerialism have infused the academy in ways he could probably not imagine, it might seem odd to return to a critique issuing from the 1950s that pre-figures all of that. Also, if the intention here were simply to use Barthes to suggest that the university is in a miserable state, this hardly needs saying again. It is by now an old complaint, and was perhaps best, or most starkly put, in Bill Readings’ The university in ruins (1996), which described the plight of US academia, and has, as a complaint, been repeated in various forms ever since. See, for instance Michael Bailey and Des Freedman’s edited collection The assault on universities (2011), which describes the situation of UK academia in fairly stark terms as one of an institution fighting for its survival. For some, indeed, attention has turned from identifying the wreckage, to finding ways to crawl out of it (Fleming et al., 2022).
The issue of the academic’s complicity in this process of ruination remains a tricky one to fully account for, however, even though efforts have been made to understand how audit and marketisation function to co-opt academic labour and affect to their logics and evaluative orders (see, for example, Alvesson and Spicer 2016; Strathern 1997, 2000a, 2000b). The chief difficulty is one of understanding how such high levels of compliance, or strategic game-playing as exist within the sector are performed in good conscience, and how a belief that the university as a non-domesticated space, or one with at least some ‘bolt-holes’ and ‘breathing spaces’, manages to survive, and as such would still be an institution worth defending or giving oneself to beyond a simple wage-labour exchange (see Webb, 2018, for a caustic critique of this presumption). One argument is to suggest that the university has become a psychotic institution (Sievers, 2008) within which its employees suffer from a kind of ‘automatic anxiety’ (251) – a shutting down of the organism before excessive stimuli and a reduction to a basic level of unreflective living. This is one way of understanding how the academic responds to the creeping totalitarianism of the university sector. Sievers goes on to argue that it is ‘an open question as to whether university role holders are able to acknowledge this traumatic experience – in order to learn from it – or whether they consciously or unconsciously adapt by activating their own psychotic parts.’ Indeed, the latter is thought to be more likely.
My hunch is that the uncanny of the university (and university reform) is not broadly concomitant with the experience of horror. Therefore, it is not possible for the uncanny to announce “the destruction of the Heimliche” (‘Homely’) and thus “the dissolution of the familiar”… It appears that the uncanny broadly remains an “unthought known”… i.e. knowledge in an organization that is shared by everyone but whose meaning and consequences cannot be thought and remain unspeakable and unthinkable. (Sievers, 2008: 251)
This is fairly close to my own analysis of the affective economy of academic life and the outlook of the educator more broadly in a time of crisis, as argued in The cynical educator (Allen, 2017). Relatedly, it may be worthwhile drawing attention to how compliant attitudes and complicities are succoured and good conscience is maintained by placing some elements of academic life above suspicion. These practices and commitments are routinely assumed to be on the ‘good side’ of things. This side, or site of resistance, becomes the holding place or the bastion of some kind of culturally embedded, noble reserve. It allows academics to think that some good can still be done within the system, because the system still sustains some core elements of their professional practice. The residual existence of that noble reserve is then demonstrated in their ability to keep on working as professional academics within the system. Chief among these elements or presumed-to-be-surviving goods of academic life, is the idea that the university persists, despite it all, as a space of thought, a place where thinking happens and ideas are debated, that is to say, as an environment that can still support the work of the intellect. It is here, in this assumption, that this paper levers its argument. By suggesting that anti-intellectualism is not only present, but that it is also institutionally embedded within UK academia, this paper utilises Barthes’ work to push consideration of the future of the institution closer to a kind of crisis point, and ask, in turn, where, if not here, will the intellect survive? Of course, many of the complaints against the university will be familiar, and most academics will still consider that the university, for all its faults, does allow for an intellectual existence. What this paper endeavours to argue, however, is that a set of forces may well be acting to eviscerate the academy as a space where thought, in the broader sense of a type of non-conforming, exploratory, and unbiddable intellectual work, can still happen. It may well be that this kind of intellectual work will increasingly be produced outside of, or in spite of everything academia throws at it, including the last vestiges of a belief in the promise of professionalism and the professionalisation of the intellect.
What makes Barthes’ argument interesting, and worth attending to in the context of debate about the plight of academia in a period of broader political decay, where indeed the future of the liberal free-thinking West is held to be at stake, is that the breeding ground of anti-intellectualism, or what might today be called ‘populism’, is typically assumed to be among the lower orders of society, with the least educated most prone to its lies. Yet Barthes, for his part, situates its origins a little higher, with the petit bourgeois who sees the world through the narrow window of the cash register. This computable realm is the home of a common sense, no-nonsense view of the world which, ‘in order to see clearly…must first blind itself’ and ‘refuse to go beyond appearances’ (Barthes, 1957/2012b: 94). It is a style of thinking that has been embraced by the university, which has embedded its reductive transactional logic throughout its operations including the production and evaluation of academic research. I would wager that to be associated with the petit-bourgeoisie (the lowest, least ‘cultured’ rung of the bourgeoisie in the old typology), will be considered worse even than to be associated with the proletariat for the (predominantly) middle class academic. The academic would like to think that they have nothing, no connection at all to the petit bourgeois culture Barthes found himself confronted with in 1950s France, but the affinity in outlook is striking.
None of which is meant to imply that today’s university is a hotbed of populism, or even that it is preparing the way for some kind of populist undermining of the institutions of democracy. Universities are frequently opposed in their mission statements and cultural outlooks to populist ideas (such as the populist rejection of establishment elites, or the populist elision of cosmopolitan values in favour of narrowly configured nationalist interests). And yet, corporate universities have also become increasingly authoritarian in terms of their day-to-day operations. It is indeed a remarkable feature of the liberal and humanist outlook that it can still inhabit such spaces. Even in liberal terms, however, the marginalisation of a certain kind of intellectual work within the academy does raise questions about the health of the university as a place of potential dissent, or at least, as a place where non-hegemonic ideas may be explored. It suggests that the university is not as resistant to outside influence as might be hoped, and is in danger of becoming an increasingly closed institution, all-too-easily instrumentalised and intolerant of heterodox thought. It could well be that the corporate university has reached such a point in its development (or what some might call its degeneration), that as an institution it might be articulated far more easily than most would credit to a dubious political moment. This university is vulnerable to co-option because of the very structures and habits of thinking it has already set up, because of those institutional commonplaces academics consent to, working practices that have become just ‘business as usual’ and are increasingly overlooked or downplayed as they become more and more ordinary. Today’s university rewards conformity and compliance within its ranks, and is, as some argue, functioning to embed new and more highly developed forms of ‘institutional and interpersonal overt and symbolic violence’ within those systems (Ratle et al., 2020: 452). As such, it may present a poor counterweight to a ‘bought’ media and a wayward political class. For all the internal talk of collegiality, its democratic structures are over-ridden or bypassed, and have arguably ceased to function as a counterweight to executive decision. As McCann et al. (2020) put it, ‘the existing university governance mechanisms (senate, boards of governors, etc.) have become moribund’ (446). These mechanisms have been replaced by administrative systems which operate by way of performative metrics that are ‘intangible, vague and contradictory, existing on a digital and vaporous plane that escapes rational interpretation, physical identification and bodily confrontation’ (445). The indictments here are as severe as they may be familiar to the severest critics of the university. And yet, perhaps one of the last fond conceits to be slayed is the idea that the university persists as the home of the intellect. The intellect has little or no space left to dwell, even if (or precisely because) the fact of each fresh academic paper appears to refute that very claim.
My thanks to Steve Hanson for reading and responding to an earlier draft of this paper and to my two anonymous reviewers.
 For a roundup of some of the key characteristics of the corporate, or corporate-imperial university see Webb (2018). Although this paper draws from a broad international literature, its analysis is focused on UK academia, and so addresses the culture of the corporate university in this context in particular. Elements of its analysis will be applicable to other national settings and corporate university systems, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore precisely how, and with what necessary adjustments.
 Prevent is considered by its critics to be part of a gradual authoritarian ‘creep’ in British politics, and has, for its part, further potential for development. In the 2022 Tory leadership campaign, Rishi Sunak suggested that the definition of ‘extremism’ would be further widened under his premiership to include ‘extreme hatred of Britain’ (Balani, 2022).
 Directed by Victora Pile, Campus was first aired in the UK in 2011.
 Already back in 2015 Thomas Docherty was drawing attention to how universities are reorganising themselves against those with ‘outspoken opinions’ who may damage the brand. This cultural and institutional shift influences not only content, but delivery, and is designed to enforce a system of manners: ‘Conformity to the brand is now also conformity to a specific tone of voice; and the tone in question is one of supine compliance with ideological norms’ (Docherty, 2015).
 The argument that the academic has been ‘proletarianised’, might indeed be considered a reflection of this preference (Hall, 2018). A far more ambitious and difficult argument would be to identify anti-intellectualism a little higher up still, in the bourgeoisie proper. Indeed, this would be complicated by the ‘ex-nominating operation’ of the bourgeois class (Barthes, 1957/2000: 138), which Barthes already noted in 1957, and which must surely now be accomplished given that the term has all but fallen out of common usage. This is the operation of a political class that does not wish to be named, and defends itself by universalising its values and then slipping from sight before them. Barthes indeed suggests that petit bourgeois norms (of the type outlined in this paper) are the observable ‘residue of bourgeois culture’ (140), and so the philistinism of petit-bourgeois culture is actually only reproduced higher up, but in a less easily targeted form.
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Ansgar Allen is the author of books including The cynical educator (Mayfly Books, 2017) and Cynicism (MIT Press, 2020), as well as theory fictions including Black vellum (Schism Press, 2023), The wake and the manuscript (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2022), and The sick list (Boiler House Press, 2021). He is based in Sheffield, UK.
Email: a.allen AT sheffield.ac.uk