I’m reading The Gods by Alain (the pen name of Emile-Auguste Chartier 1868-1951), who had a profound influence on Sartre, Simone Weil, and other French thinkers of the first half of the 20th century. As far as I know his work is not taken as significant for any current academic or other discourse. This leads me to wonder about all thought in the form of literature (and by extension, art) that is currently obscure, unassimilable, and without reference in the academic world today, which is not on the horizon of discovery but is considered past that stage. I refer specifically to the academic world since, partly since its alliance with technologically advanced media, it has come to represent the totality of “serious” thought, critical thought that must be taken into account. I am asking how to categorize such extra-academic and extra-journalistic thought, whose due-date is past, and what would be the conditions for it to be taken seriously again.

Alain’s thought would be classified as humanist wisdom, grounded in the classics and especially Stoic philosophy, an extension of Montaigne’s project. It was largely produced as a newspaper column and directed at a general and not an academic public. It has been discarded along with other such writing by those who saw the political limitations of humanism, and considered the classical references serving that trope to be useless for scholarly purposes.

Thought such as Alain’s is not unassimilable because it is ahead of its time, too unfamiliar to be yet understood on its own terms, but because it is considered to be subsumed in a category already sufficiently comprehended, digested, and judged useless as food for further ingestion. If it was once provocative it is so no longer, just like the historical artistic avantgarde in its distinction from Contemporary Art. The only place for his thought would be as historical raw material for study of a period that can no longer challenge us to debate, except over interpretations of its meaning and significance for the past and not for us. It has meaning for us today in communicating how we should not be thinking in order to be considered a contemporary of today’s thinking. The curve of Progress has overtaken Alain, meaning that he who was once a subject, a speaker, is now object, a text. It would be anachronistic to bring him up in discussion, for his concerns are situated in a way of thinking that no longer exists or belongs to people outside a productive universe of discourse. It is uncontroversial, meaning that no one respected today as an intellectual will be roused to its defense. His thought would have to be re-discovered and re-interpreted as relevant, raised from the dead, and that would happen only if there were those who wanted to challenge current discourse in ways that could make use of it.

There is another category of thought and literature from the past that is outside serious consideration, and that is what is unknown since it has never received the attention of anyone considered an authority, and has possibly not even been published. This must pass from non-existence to existence, must first become literature.

This was the case for the literature of slaves, during the period that I was in school and college. Unlike Alain’s, since it had never been sanctioned as literature in the first place except by a few writers viewed as marginal, it had never been actually assessed and rejected. It had first to be discovered by rebel academics in the seventies, as part of a political and generational shift in academia, which led to it being unearthed, valued as literature, mined for dissertations, and even taught as part of a middle class education. Certainly when I was in school and college fifty to sixty years ago few would have envisioned that such would come about. What was then buried was nothing ancestral but something anonymous that never had any place among the living, that is, according to those who were institutionally recognized at the time as the high court of appeal of truth. In fact, this was the same high court which would have taken Alain’s humanist wisdom seriously. A survey of the scholars of the pre-Civil Rights era would show that academics had the same confidence in the validity of their selection of what was worthy of discourse as exists currently. In both instances a place can be found in the house of knowledge for what continues in the same vein (questions needing “further research”), but not for what one has never imagined could be of interest to anyone.

Living a life that has bridged many chasms, I can now read slave narratives as a discovery that brings me into the present. It is a common present, one shared with many others, and I must be careful to maintain my own perspective, and not be swept up in the powerful current of opinion shaped by those who have unearthed these texts, however much I might appreciate their archeological labors. But when I turn to someone like Alain I am on my own. He is obscure not because of a racist blindspot that a later generation would denounce but because of the form and purpose of his thought. He would be tainted for using the signifier “man,” one of whose signifieds (the human) was challenged as referring to another signified (male) and so problematical for those who question male hegemony. This is the standard convention today, a norm which is enforced. As a result, current quotations of earlier texts that utilize “man” follow it with [sic] to indicate the updating. Moreover, “man” assumes that there is something essential about the human, an essential that can be discerned most readily in European history and culture. This is another current norm and enforced standard, since it would be difficult to argue today that other cultures are to be read as inadequate versions of the European, as they once were. For these reasons “man” was erased from the secular lexicon with a vengeance similar to that which once erased “Negro,” which at least in the early sixties was the correct and liberal word to use in place of the earlier proper term, “colored.”

Besides these most obvious reasons, Alain’s purpose of writing was for people to see themselves linked to a common existence in facing their lives, and this is not taken seriously. It has no use for scholarship or politics; people who are puzzled by their individual fate and other existential questions are expected to turn elsewhere. Such a concern locates the writer on the far side of a watershed that divides the contemporary from an earlier era, just as a previous major watershed divided those who spoke of art as a medium for divine representation and communication from those who spoke of art as referring to the universal subject, “man.” (This from another book I’m reading, Art is Not What you Think it is, by Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

I am not interested in exploring Alain’s thought here, only using its obscurity today to indicate that those who produce the “official” thought of an age that thinks of itself as democratic will imagine their judgment as summing up the best available. It is final for the time being, and since if we could guess the future direction of thought we would be bringing that thought into the present, the final for the time being is of absolute finality. Such thought is the result of a consensual, communal judgment of the meritocratically selected best minds and not of an individual unreconciled to others. This is the centrist model of scientific thought, which is posed against the model of the stubborn eccentric on the periphery who is not willing to “listen to reason.” Official thought today is academic, that is, institutionally grounded and funded, yet is considered relevant and valid outside academe. Truth is not disruptively opposed to power but is power, with contradictions worked out from within by experts.

I have tried to couch this in terms that are as neutral as possible, such that it could be unclear whether I assent to this power, to the academic conventions that would avoid the male- and European-centrism and polite racism in which I was raised. In fact I do assent to large chunks of the shift in thinking and value it. Yet given that I have no academic affiliations or expectations, and have not been trained to take these conventions for granted, I wish to retain my own power to examine how this shift has taken place and what are its consequences and limitations.

The watershed I refer to is a phenomenon that has gradually come into being but began with a shock of a sudden uprising. Previously there were intellectuals who supported themselves mostly through publishing books and articles on the middlebrow mass market. They were considered “public intellectuals,” to distinguish themselves from academics, who were seen as merely speaking to each other and irrelevant to public issues. They came mostly from the political Left of the thirties and gravitated around New York. In the post-war atmosphere of the fifties their politics shifted along with that of the wider public, and they began to enter an academia that broadened to include them. At the same time, academic social science, which claimed political neutrality, was being read by a middle class educated public as relevant to their lives and society. This meant that henceforth criticism would be included in an institution, even functional to it.

In the late sixties and seventies, a period that many hyperbolized as revolutionary or expected to lead in that direction(including myself), those critical of established institutions included young academics, the most vocal of whom attacked their respective professions for their claim of political neutrality. Their careers were grounded in following the standards of scholarship, but with the added motivation that they would be an effective force for change. They would achieve this not by standing in protest outside the institution, which was perceived as the limited and futile strategy of the student movement, but from within, transforming their disciplines and/or adding new ones as special “studies” departments. The shift was from confrontation with the institution as a whole to confronting its belief in its neutrality on its own turf, and this could only be done if there was a change internal to the disciplines, with academics who were politically committed to social change replacing those who claimed that was not a function of their work. The officials of knowledge would change and a new officialdom would take its place.

The academic rebellion of the 70s was successful. In the period before that watershed, which I experienced in graduate school in the mid-sixties, past scholarship was viewed as part of a continuous stream that reached back to at least the late 19th century. Granted, my field, European history, was possibly the least receptive of any disciplines to political and methodological challenge, but even literature, at the other end of the spectrum, suffered nothing like the disruption of the profession before the late sixties. Henceforth, and at no time earlier, it became conventional for thought to frame itself as contradicting “conventional thinking.” One possible marker of sanctioned thought would be the denial that there was anything conventional about it. The naive reader might get the impression that it is an underdog doing battle on behalf of progress against “received opinion.” Exactly who besides the academic speaker has the power to dictate an established opinion, and who has received it without question, is not a subject for further inquiry.

It is not the point of this article, but I will at least mention the parallel of the academic world and the art world, which is similarly grounded institutionally, and the art music world, a miniature version of that. These “worlds,” are matrices of the production, distribution, and assessment of claims of presumably the entire field, and the place were meanings are distinguished and assigned. They are the means by which their respective products are validated and promoted to those outside the matrix as worthy of consideration, and others invalidated and denigrated as having been assessed and found wanting.

Today many concepts other than those centered on “man” have lost their discursive site and have been deliberately interred, presumed to have been examined and given their appropriate and final judgment. Moreover, literature studied academically is not intended to provide insight on how to deal with life, either for academics or laypeople. The impression one would receive from sociologists, for instance, is that life on the individual level is miserable and there is no way of dealing with it except to protest it in some fashion. This is not meant to indicate how the sociologist relates to his or her own life, which is not on the table for discussion.

Academic writers ritually bow to ultimate Truth in confessing that their texts are not the last word, yet like the art and art music worlds they will not discuss a challenge coming from outside their universe of discourse. Moreover, the self-enclosure of various universes of discourse is one of the most common postulates; signifiers can only refer to other signifiers. “Universe” of discourse is then self-contradictory; on the one hand it indicates an all-inclusive totality, on the other hand their plurality means that others exist, parallel universes. From outside, the academic world appears to be caught in circularity: one must translate one’s ideas into conventional academic language in order to be taken seriously, and yet seriousness connotes that one is against conventional thinking.  One would have to edit one’s speech for the sake of communication and acceptance rather than to be understood. Despite the rejection of variously named  –centrist viewpoints, and the claim of working towards heterogeneity, there is a line separating what is considered serious, worthy, and productive of further research from what is not. In fact, “heterogeneity,” “radical challenge,” “ intervention,” and the like are signifiers useful to an strategy intended to limit discussion. One opens one door in order to close another, which should not be surprising in the conception of a universe of discourse.

It is similar with art, with even some of the academic lexicon borrowed: to present oneself as open, challenging, serious and radical is the strategy of official (Contemporary) Art to validate itself and invalidate what is not sanctioned. In fact, the establishment of Contemporary Art as the predominant category of high art, roughly beginning in the early 80s, and its triumph most visibly in the Tate Modern in London in the late 80s, roughly coincided with the coming to power of the new academic orientation around the same time. This is a cultural development of great significance, whereby both Art and Knowledge found a common conceptual framework, one that reshaped the more limited modernist avantgarde, which was largely confined to specific movements. Both Art and Knowledge are today both institutionalized and avantgarde movements, the difference from the latter being that they have considerable power to define what is and is not to be taken seriously.

Again, I would caution that however polemical this may appear I am not necessarily opposed what to these institutions have chosen. In fact my reading is largely confined to texts currently acceptable in academia and my listening of art music to that approved by the art music world, which as a gross generalization is those musicians whose livelihood is or was to play and/or compose music. My point is that each of these worlds, or “universes of discourse,” are self-referential and at the same time self-promotional in relation to the outside world, which is the majority of the population. They are hegemonic powers, meaning that they have the assent of those who most fully share the interests of those worlds and the passive consent of most of those who do not. The outside is defined as that which has no such interconnected universe of its own and therefore nothing that approaches the power of the academic and art worlds. The outside at best consists of ad hoc alliances of individual voices, those who can only make available a critique that appears from their perspective and have no power to enforce it or reward others for agreeing with it.  To suggest what such a perspective might be and make it available is what I am attempting to do.

After WWII faith in Progress was considered naïve, since it was then blatantly apparent that it could be used for either good or ill. It ceased being apostrophized, as it had been since the 19th century, and would have to go on like a god whose worshippers must pay homage in secret. Faith in it would continue, but now unmentioned, otherwise the victory of the new over the older official discourse might be doubted. Since the watershed of the sixties one must give the impression that pluralism of opinion is being sought and judgment is open and tentative, intended to defeat the “narrow-minded” pretensions of the past. This is window-dressing, for judgment is still being made, opposing opinions defeated, and those holding them demoted, driven from power, and forced to accommodate and reinvent themselves. It is a rhetorical strategy in defense of a specific position, for any struggle is favored by an achieved unity. Imagining we could look back on our present from a distant perspective, it would appear much as present thought views what lies on the other side of the historical watershed: a few insightful precursors, a few more who didn’t know they would assist us, but the rest are forgettable sheep, following the tendencies of the day now seen to be in error. What official thought and art is assigned and paid to accomplish is to define the present as what it truly is, and to resist what is not by whatever strategy is effective.

Let me conclude with a story and analysis of where in myself this critique comes from, for while I obviously claim it to be true it is first of all my motivated viewpoint. It does not arise out of a dispassionate and disembodied mind following a consensual, objective model. Just as I am poised and barely balanced in my relation to the music world, in but not of it, so my relation to the official world of academia is personally motivated. Every effort to get above life, to represent and understand it, is still going to happen within that very life.

What attracted me to history in my youth was that it allowed me to perceive the present as a particular age, and so enabled me to think myself distant from it. In this way I could hope to keep my balance, to define myself to some extent for myself. When one day in the mid-sixties I read “we cannot escape our historical skin” I was stunned, for I could not argue against it except as a bare and frightened individual. Current middlebrow thinking of that period told me that we were all alienated, and had good reason to be, but I was alienated in a way that denied that a word and concept such as that could help me get an effective grasp on my suffering. Aspects of my own thought in the sixties did not fit either the academic model of the time nor that which was coming into being, so I could only barely relate my underground preoccupations to the present. My thought was too close to my self, to my needs, to problematics I saw in history that I needed to resolve first of all for myself. For instance, my interest to explore the inside/outside, civilized/barbarian dichotomy in Western history was grounded in my confusion of where to place myself. To say that I was projecting would have presumed that there was an alternative, an objective viewpoint, and a truth and methodology to attain it. While I could perform the mental operations required for such objectivity my mind had another, more existential viewpoint that was at least equally insistent, and so a struggle constantly ensued. I tried to mask the more obscure workings of the mind in political activism, but this was not good enough.

The history I wrote out of this private need, which I kept hidden from my above-ground academic work, failed in my own eyes. I could not bring it to life any more than I could accommodate fully to the academic model. And even after I became an activist in what was categorized as the New Left I had no place in the generation that was breaking down the academic walls and celebrating its revolt. So in the late seventies I got out my shovel and buried my work, burned every one of my papers and writings, my hidden as well as academic work, and turned to the saxophone in hopes of having some relation to the world that is. When I say that I play as part of the world and not to be valued as one of the art music world this is where I am coming from.

Since the mid-80s, however, as a sideline to music I have been examining the many shifts that have taken place since I was involved in academe, and, wary of dismissing what I don’t understand, have attempted to evaluate those shifts. In the process I have dealt myself some heavy corrective blows, which I don’t regret in the slightest. Apart from that, trying to escape my self-image as an obscure misfit I ask myself, what does the current universe of academic discourse, so much of it still alien to me after more than forty years of its existence, have to do with the kind of questions still burning in me? I am already addressing academics, sharing thoughts and criticism, occasionally participating, just as many of my partners are finding their way (back) to academia as students and teachers. Now I step back and ask, what will my own path of re-engagement bring?

Alain: “To think is to say no.” from The Citizen against the Powers, [Le Citoyen contre les Pouvoirs,1926]