Artillery Row

Make Woke not Work

Social justice dons are de-skilling the Cambridge English Faculty

As a Cambridge History undergraduate (1978-81), I observed with wry bemusement the notorious (at the time) dispute among English Literature dons over the decision by King’s College not to grant a tenured fellowship to Colin MacCabe when his research fellowship came to an end. It resulted in what we would now call a culture war between those who had been influenced by Marxism and structuralism and those who continued to champion practical criticism (often called Leavisites, after the late F. R. Leavis), led by Christopher Ricks. Today, in our age of identity politics, how quaint the Colin MacCabe affair now seems, but at least it was a debate about English Literature itself. The same cannot be said for those who are currently in charge of the English Faculty.

A former English don who has long since departed for other shores of academe has shared with me the latest edition of the English Faculty newsletter, 9 West Road, which is sent out electronically to English undergraduates and graduates alike on an annual basis. The latest edition will doubtless be studied by future generations as an exercise in abject wokery.

Take, for example, a report by Ekin Bodur, a PHD Candidate in English (Critcism and Culture) about a recent academic conference. “In addressing the Global South, we do not refer to the concept as a geographical designation, but rather as a critical concept in reference to the peoples and zones experiencing most acutely the negative impact of global capitalism in the long term. This, of course, brings with it a sense of deterritorialization as there are Global Souths in the North and vice versa, particularly when considering, to give two different examples, the ongoing refugee crises of our day or thinking about Irish adaptations of ancient Greek tragedies from a postcolonial perspective.” 

Dr Jason Scott-Warren, Reader in Early Modern Literature and Director of the Cambridge Centre for Material, treats us to a “what-I-did-in-my-holidays” account of his participation in the Extinction Rebellion protests. “I am looking back on a year of wall-to-wall activism, a year in which subtle arguments about early modern literary culture have been crowded out by the search for rhetorics and actions that might inspire change,” he explained breathlessly. “In private, I’ve been grappling with a debilitating sense that the long timescales of academia – the process of patient, collaborative accumulation, interrupted by sudden cascades of understanding – might be mythical. Will the rare books and manuscripts still be safe in the libraries in ten or twenty years? Will low-lying Cambridge be underwater for large parts of the year in one, two, three decades’ time? How should my writing and teaching change in response to these corrosive questions (should I be writing and teaching at all?) As the Amazon burns and Greenland melts, all bets are off, and (as Lear’s Fool might put it) we are left darkling.” At least he manages a passing reference to Shakespeare, I suppose. 

One can only pity the poor undergraduates

The front cover of 9 West Road shows a man accompanied by police officers – presumably Dr Scott-Waren being led away to the cells. An “update” relates that Jason was found guilty for his protest activity and fined £800, plus £380 costs. 

The star turn is taken by Dr Sophie Seita JRF, a Queens’ College graduate, who is now Assistant Professor at Boston University and who specialises in poetry, poetics, and performance, who describes her work for the 2017 Festival of Ideas. Along with the curator Yates Norton, she apparently “transformed the JE Wilson drama studio into an absurd 18th century salon, full of mounds of shredded paper, miniature paper theatres, projections, and washing lines inspired by Diderot’s entry on the wigmaker in his Encyclopédie – everything functioning as a set for my performative lecture, which was recently published as an artist book by the Chicago-and Berlin-based press Other Forms. That lecture performance was part of a three-year long project of what I’ve lovingly called my imaginary conversations with Enlightenment thinkers, writers, and scientists; conversations I turned into material for a series of performances, videos, sound pieces, texts, and installations, which culminated in a solo exhibition at [SPACE] in Hackney last summer (June-July 2019).” 

Her “sprawling project” was “marked by a criss-cross of genres, media, and approaches to thinking, making, and sharing. It playfully investigated the Enlightenment’s obsession with (scientific) truth, rationality, and empiricism and our inheritance of these forms of knowledge and their dissemination. I was motivated by a politics of attention and hospitality and a curiosity of how to make historical material contemporary in a way that acknowledges its specific problematics along the axes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Why did I pick the Enlightenment?… The Enlightenment’s values of universality, progress, and individualism, as well as its commitment to progress and to widening knowledge have shaped so much of our thinking, our understanding of the rights of individuals or groups. But the same ideas and practices also led to exclusions or were used to justify the exploitation of the planet; were also responsible for colonialism, for establishing a hierarchy based on gender and race. Practice-as-research is one way in which we might explore these histories and ideas performatively.” 

Decolonising the curriculum is on a par with dethroning the Enlightenment belief in objective scientific knowledge for the sake of avoiding offence

Sophie’s friend and collaborator Simone Kearney has described her project as “a queer feminist translation of enlightenment tropes, texts, characters in the form of a performance — as if these texts had been interjected and mangled by (queer) love and imagination, and the defiance (free, on fire!) it is buoyant with – a performance that, itself a translation, fuses with the translations of others (the music, the sculptures etc.) who have themselves translated this translation (!!). So it is a performance that is itself an embodiment of a kind of de-centring.”

Next, we hear from Alex de Costa, a senior lecturer who is also the Faculty’s newly-appointed Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) Officer. “Each term my plan has been to focus on research or initiatives loosely related to the protected characteristics recognised by the 2010 Equality Act that will improve equality and diversity in the Faculty and foster a greater sense of inclusivity. Obviously, the work cannot be completed in a single term [otherwise her post would be rendered redundant], but this strategy ensures we can make progress as a Faculty on a number of fronts. My first priority in Michaelmas 2018 was to take forward a number of requests from the Staff Student Decolonisation Working Group. We now have guidance on using racially charged language in lectures and a summary of how to report racial discrimination or harassment on the EDI webpages.”

De Costa signs off on a cheery note: “In 2019/20 I will be focusing on economic inequality and its impact on undergraduates transitioning from school to University and gender inequalities.” 

On another page, the Faculty’s Access and Outreach Officer, Philip Knox, interviews Lola Olufemi about the book she co-authored with two other Cambridge graduates Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Kahn: A FLY Girl’s Guide to University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Power and Elitism. Olufemi was one of those who campaigned for the decolonization of the English curriculum. 

“I like to think about decolonisation in the way Frantz Fanon [the Marxist thinker] thought about it – as a process of complete disorder,” she tells Knox. “It is a process that seeks, amongst many other things, to repatriate land and resource, reckon with colonial encounter and encourage us to examine how western knowledge production is inextricably linked to colonial domination. Institutions are still in many ways exploitative and extractive, and in former colonies, the history of English Literature as a discipline was about the maintenance of cultural authority. Histories of exploitation have resulted in the ability for certain frameworks of knowledge to be seen as somehow neutral or objective. Knowledge is not neutral: how does that fact change how we teach, how we learn, our perception of the canon, our view of certain authors as representative of certain time periods? Decolonisation seeks to mess up what we know about literary history.”

Olufemi’s views are aligned with those of Sophie Seita above. Decolonising the curriculum is on a par with dethroning the Enlightenment belief in objective scientific knowledge for the sake of avoiding offence to ethnic minorities, women, etc. But before you “mess up” literary history (or any subject) you need to have some proper grounding in to start with. One can only pity the poor undergraduates. To judge from the dons quoted here, there seems to be little room for acquiring sound knowledge and critical skill in the current Cambridge English Faculty.

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