Academic egos and ‘Self-forgetting’

Roy Coleman

“If we follow our well understood self-interest, how can we learn to depend upon disinterestedness, on self-forgetfulness, on sacrifice?” (Durkheim)

Elsewhere this blog has posted on the neo-barbarian university. This post looks at the role of the academic considering Durkheim’s claim that self-interest runs counter to the possibility of solidarity in a society forged on morality, compassion and self-forgetfulness. Self-interest drives homo-economus and represents not the death of emotion but the unleashing of an intemperate passion of fevered ego-promotion. The trick is pretending self-interest is merely cold calculus without a hint of desire. But as Durkheim, Veblen and Schopenhauer knew, rational interests are the representative driving force of human insatiability, violence and injustice.

Durkheim’s words warn of the dangers of academic egoism manifest at the institutional and individual level and confluent with marketing, self-promotion and ostentatious displays of prowess. Such ego-display is indicative of Durkheim’s “infinite desire” and manifest in honours, ranking and ‘skill-set enhancement’ over and above the work-a-day teaching and research process. Thorstein Veblen argued that honours, ranking and display of the skill-set are illustrative of the prowess of the relatively affluent. It is they who cut the contemporary barbaric figure, because that is where status seeking, distinctiveness and acquisitiveness are instilled as aspirant middle-class values. Early sociologists argued that such strivings and the need for ‘success’ reinforce social forms of derangement and morbidity (as Durkheim defined them in relation to human narcissism, weariness and exhaustion).

As academics we live and work within the self-interest machine. Our academic process – its professionalisation, ‘intellectual’ hierarchy and career structure – is not the best grounding for promoting what Gramsci called “good sense” and Durkheim called “moral sense”. These ideals should be on-going talking points if academics are to work on equal terms with each other and with those outside of university. Is there a danger that many of us, as academics, do not have a feeling for what makes good and moral sense?

We do many things, not necessarily unthinkingly, that go against good and moral sense such as:

– talk to each other in sealed, expensive and elitist gatherings and/or in journals with no ‘public’ relevance as defined in the widest possible terms

– strive for new concepts, sometimes with high middle-class chic status but zero real world applicability

– endlessly describe the world with better ever more nuanced post relevant concepts

– cultivate incomprehensibility as a token of prestige and significance (a sign, as Veblen argued, of the barbarian)

– rank themselves in barbarian fashion under the plume of self-congratulatory and self-referential hierarchies that bestow honour and prestige upon the individual academic

– extend, ostentatiously, curriculum vitae as noted in nebulous phrases such as special invited speaker, keynote speech or high impact work.

– groan about the difficult but only real public speaking most academics do, i.e.: lecturing to their students.

– avoid a moral position or just avoid the word ‘moral’ (itself a sign support for the ‘superiority’ of rationally thought out plans and interests and a shield accusations of relativism)

– avoid any mention of human nature (in the ways that early Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Veblen did)

– display a “cheerful robotic” persona (C Wright Mills) at the expense of a healthy pessimism towards rational ‘living’

In short, we seldom practice disinterestedness and self-forgetfulness whilst careering. Many academics do want to create a world less hierarchical but do so from hierarchical divisions between themselves which in turn mirrors the latter-day barbarism enshrined in the corporation.  Like the entrepreneur, the academic increasingly musters ostentatious displays of mobility, publication, citing of work, social media followings and invitations to speak.

Academics may not choose these practices, and some are critical of them, but they never-the-less engage in status aggrandisement and distinction as a sign of cultural and institutional prowess. In this sense enlightened self-interest is alive and normalized. Durkheim was closer to the truth when he said that self-interest was encouraging the wrong kind of emotional energies in the disguise of rational interests, obligation and duty.

Durkheim’s point? Academic striving negates our ability to let go of the ego and cultivate the compassionality that obliterates hierarchy with a love of, and a desire for, mutual understanding. For Durkheim this was the moral basis he was trying to establish for sociology (as was the case with Robert Park). For Gramscians too, compassionality that breaks down interests is the basis for social change and the forging of ‘progressive’ cultural formations.

Should we challenge hierarchies, inequalities and status differentials where we find them or should we do the challenging in someone else’s backyard? Do academics want to hang on to their status differentials and, if they do, on what basis? What is the basis for them anyway? It seems that this basis is something more than intellectual curiosity.

As the physicist Richard Feynman said of the role of honouring and status distinction in his field: “I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure finding out, the discovery, other people using it. Those are the real things. The honours are unreal. Honours are epaulettes. Honours are uniforms”. The disinterested pursuit of knowledge – for Durkheim and Feynman – meant sacrifice of the individual ego. The latter expresses an essential insatiability and tyranny in not allowing us to self-forget. This in turn hampers a kind of knowledge  that would challenge individual, corporate and national interests – their violence and injustices.




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Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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