The Mail, and a government whip, are taking issue with the idea that academics may be doing down the glories of Brexit. Why?
We love to tell ourselves stories – we love to situate our actions and our emotions within an overall narrative with a start, middle and end. Progress towards a goal, a conclusion, a brighter future. We all do it – the post-doc juggling two temporary teaching contracts in two subjects related to her research interest, the new father promising himself the new responsibilities will change who he is, the voter helping to plot a course towards opportunity, security or honesty.
Brexit – what is it but another one of these great cinematic stories? The plucky island nation, rich in history and passion, seizing the chance to determine for itself a bright future. Seeking freedom from international regulations and rules, the chance to trade on advantageous terms, to make the laws and decisions it needs. Brexit is the hope of a country once again seeking to drive the narrative forward. To make stuff happen, not to have stuff happen to it.
The job of the contemporary academic is to destroy hope. Not just destroy – atomise. Disintegrate. De-construct. The early enlightenment sought to build the ultimate human and holy narrative – connecting for ourselves the cogs in the blind watchmaker’s finely wrought machine. The flowering complexity of late modernism, itself a further reaction to what seemed to be the last gasp of backward-looking romanticism, saw this narrative teeter at the limit of human comprehension. And then it fell – Einstein, Schrodinger, Wolstencraft, Wittgenstein. Two brutal, pointless, and bloody wars. Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Lyotard, Kristeva, Hall.
The life of the mind took on a new complexion – turned on the connected, ever-growing progress plotted far into the future. It turned on itself, critiquing and unmasking the leaps of logic and the unexpected constants. The expediencies that allowed us to continue to point to the future with hope.
When Donald Fagen sung “What a beautiful world this could be – what a glorious time to be free” – he sang with irony, with disillusionment, and with a certain wistful longing. For us this is amplified, academic life means a surrender of the absolute, a destruction of a human faith in outcomes to be replaced by a practitioners faith in process.
The new critical study of the history of thought brought new tools to play on old solid assumptions. Morality returned to science, a shock that still reverberates and perplexes.
But outside our collegiate walls the world didn’t change. Socialism promised equality, fascism promised purity, capitalism promised wealth – but life, for most, remained brutal, difficult and painful. Dreams and hopes of a better world kept people alive, and kept them looking for the magic that would repair everything. Sometimes these even seemed to work, for a while, until the next crisis and the next time a swathe of honest hard-working lives were destroyed by the whims of global finance. A button was sought – today the button is Brexit.
The fact that it won’t work and can’t work is immaterial. People want to believe that something will, and Brexit – whatever else it is – is something. Scaffolded by lazy political finger-pointing, populist opportunism and expert equivocation – it’s the event of the season. A fashion – an idea that will reek of the late teens like SuperDry, Elephant’s Breath, Superorganism and the SUV.
Who are academics to take away hope? To ruin the story? The friend you once shared a film with, banished after pointing out plot holes and discontinuities. The woman in the office who read Game of Thrones rather than watched the series. The guy in the pub with the score on his phone when you wanted to watch the highlights.
Brexit – spoilers. Of course they hate it. Of course they hate us. A glimmer of hope occluded by fact. A dream spoiled by a morning alarm. How could they not?
The newspapers and politicians that argued for a dumb deal don’t want us to see how dumb it was. Not just yet. There’s more power, more influence, to wield. Whoever ran all that faked social media has a plan. So any chink in the dream armour must be repaired – anyone who peeps behind the walls of Oz must be silenced.
Because true self-determination, true understanding, in a cold, random uncaring world – is truly terrifying. Universities take young people and help them to deal with the darkest truth of all – that nothing matters, nothing works, and no-one has a clue what will happen next.