Like Mark Fisher’s excellent epithet ‘capitalist realism’ describing the cultural response to the doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’, I believe there is another closely related phenomenon that deserves to enter every intellectuals’ vocabularly: academic nihilism.
Academic nihilism is, I believe, something experienced by all truly critical thinkers who spend enough time behind the walls of universities. It is what comes after the realisation that what one is doing, all that heartfelt critical thought, all that deep probing for truth, and digging under the illusions of common sense, that it all adds up to very little. It can, like Tom Cruise’s life changing realisation in Jerry Macguire, come late at night during the long dark teatime of the soul. Or it can just come about through a creeping sense that grows until breaking point. But there is usually an event which triggers it’s realisation—perhaps right after spending considerable time completing a journal article, giving a conference paper, finishing your first book, or gaining your final qualifications. An emptiness; an ‘is this it?’ moment.
Not wanting to come across as yet another whiny academic, it is important to clarify the argument here. Because given the fact that academics, despite their current predicament, enjoy generally good salaries, long holidays, and relative autonomy for self determining their work, this is certainly no call for sympathy on labour market grounds.
No—academic nihilism is something immanent to the labour of the academic intellect itself. Books can cast a magic spell. They speak of debates, raging polemics, untold mysteries, and philosophical riddles to be cracked. They give the impression that if one can find the time to read just one more text, triangulate just those precise arguments, then one can deliver a killer blow and set the world to rights. The illusions begin here, in the library.
The first disillusionment comes when you meet these intellectual brawlers. For the most part there is something a bit dispiriting about the fact that the witty, passionate, learned and all knowing figure you read in the text, in real life is defensive, unable to justify their work, and whose knowledge is strictly limited to the narrow niche of their field.
The second disillusionment is when you realise the gap that separates these academic debates from the real world; and worse, the fact that most academics realise this, but seem untroubled by the knowledge and plough on nonetheless. In a politics department this second disillusionment is all the more attenuated. One learns with horror that your colleagues do not seem to have much interest in politics. They are content with their work being an abstract intellectual game; and are quite happy to admit in response to awkward questions regarding real world relevance or applicability that they are unsure, or unbothered by such quibbles.
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Contrary to common sense nihilism is not just the realisation of meaninglessness. Rather, it is the repetition of behaviour that one knows to be meaningless but carries on with regardless. So in a certain sense, once academic nihilism has been recognised, one is already partly released from its grasp. For the post-academic nihilst nothing is more comical than the academic who cannot see with any perspective how banal their self regard for their ever-so-important research is.
At the same time, the post-academic nihilist faces a possibly even worse temptation: cynicism. These wise cynics believe they have extricated themselves from the illusions of academic nihilism with their Machiavellian careerism and knowing irony. Is the pragmatic cynic really released from the grasp of nihilism though? Or have they simply accommodated themselves to it whilst spinning comforting lullabies to themselves about the irrelevance of it all—a kind of inner distantiation that, for example, Slavoj Zizek associated with the appeal of Tibetan Buddism for the late capitalist office worker.
Whatever the case, it is not altogether clear that the cynic is any better than the childlike naivity of the unflective academic nihilist. In some way, better to have someone who truly believes their work is meaningful and important (no matter how deluded) than the wry cynic who knows it is all just a game and will follow any latest trend, or drum up any argument whatsoever to keep carving out their unique academic niche.
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What can the post-academic nihilist do? One option would be to try to wilfully regress to the state of the naive academic. But making yourself forget is impossible; everyone knows that. Another route would be to leave academia—that route obviously makes a lot of sense, although only insofar as one is fully prepared to have their worst fears about academic nihilism painfully confirmed out there in the real world. Yet another route would be to make academia relevant by revolutionising it from within: a good idea in principle, but likely to be infuriating in practice.
Perhaps prefiguring all this needs to be a more sustained critical reflection on the source of academic nihilism. I hope I have not given the impression here that I am merely presenting a psychological malaise of the intellectual class. There are real facts and figures underlining this phenomenon. For example, the average academic article is only read twice. That is, up to six months of research and writing for an audience of two persons. I have personally also given conference papers to an audience of a single person. Academic imprints are usually published in initial runs of 100-200 copies, many of which are destined just to gather dust on library shelves. And in terms of the split between the academy and public intellectual discourse, it is large and generally unbridged.
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Calls for academics to become populist or relevant usually have deleterious effects (of a pro status quo bent). For now, all I can plea is for those critical academics to maintain this anxious state of awareness of academic nihilism.