The public domain doesn't exist inside a particular place but within a general idea. One that has the power to animate all institutions and inspire certain kinds of individuals. It is an idea that structures collective activities and gives those who participate in them a faith. The public domain a human invention that relies for its existence on the minds of its members, who must believe in its existence, and constantly recreate it through studied interventions and thoughtful commentary. We need a Calvino to describe it…
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that establish the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.
From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing. (Invisible Cities)
It wasn’t always so evanescent. The public domain once existed in institutions that called themselves public, and which were recognised as such by everyone. A solid and omnipresent world it at times could feel extremely oppressive.1 To enter we had to mould ourselves to fit its institutional form; dressing to meet its sartorial expectations; speaking in its language codes; and thinking in terms that only it regarded as valid. It looked like an office, but its atmosphere was that of a religious order. H.C.G. Matthew lets us into its high citadel.
[It was designed to produce] the ascendancy of a Coleridgean clerisy in the secular world. The almost absolute distinction between the administrative grade and the rest of the service, with admission to the administrative grade via examinations which were effectively a repeat of the Oxford and Cambridge degree examinations, would tend ‘to strengthen and multiply the ties between the higher classes and the possession of administrative power’. A civil service hitherto appointed by patronage and influence would give way to a non-political administrative class educated in the moral values of a liberal education further developed by a reformed Oxford and Cambridge. It was a means of extending, confirming, cleansing, and legitimising an existing elite. Whereas, Gladstone thought, the seventeenth century had been an age of rule by prerogative, and the eighteenth by patronage, the nineteenth would become a rule by virtue. For a liberal education attempted, above all, to produce citizens who were morally good, and such it was that would succeed in the examinations. (Quoted in David Marquand’s Decline of the Public: The Hollowing Out of Citizenship)2
Though the origins of the Victorian public domain can be traced back into earlier periods, the public domain as we have known it in this country was an essentially Victorian achievement - albeit one that the twentieth century built on extensively. The great work of the Victorian era was to carve out from the encircling market and private domains a distinct, self-conscious and vigorous public domain governed by non-market and non-private forms, and to erect barriers protecting it from incursions by its market and private neighbours…
The Gladstonian state was to be efficient, powerful and, in a sense, monarchical. The ministers at the head of it would dispose of virtually all the prerogative powers which had once belonged to the monarch. But it was also to be neutral, even aloof. It was to be free of corrupting ties to economic interest of any sort, and therefore able to take a dispassionate view of the public interest and to pursue it vigorously without fear of favour. It would hold the ring for free competition, undistorted by protection-generated monopoly, maximising prosperity for all. But a neutral state did not imply a feeble public domain. Here the distinction between the public domain and the public sector is of crucial importance. The disinterested and powerful state that Gladstone dreamed of would hold the ring for private philanthropy as well as for free competition. Complementing it would be ‘a vast network of voluntary organisations’ animated by active citizens, involved in local affairs and in charitable organisations of all sorts. It would lie at the heart of a lively and greatly extended public domain, whose vigour would be all the greater because it stemmed from the moral commitments of an engaged citizenry, not from state direction. (Decline of the Public: The Hollowing Out of Citizenship)
…the virtuous Lucretia, raped by a brutal prince of the ruling monarchy, was given a speaking part solely to denounce the rapist and announce her own suicide (or so Roman writers presented it: what really happened, we haven’t a clue). But even this rather bitter opportunity to speak could itself be removed. One story in the Metamorphoses tells of the rape of the young princess Philomela. In order to prevent any Lucretia-style denunciation, the rapist quite simply cuts her tongue out. It’s a notion that’s picked up in Titus Andronicus, where the tongue of the raped Lavinia is also ripped out.
These terrible crimes cannot be compared to the exclusion of women from speaking at Westminster or in a BBC studio; they do not even work as metaphor, for they are private acts that become public only when the victim decides to appeal to others for justice.14 And crucially: these women have that right of appeal. Lucretia is allowed to speak out about her rape because the prince has violated the female sphere by invading her home and stealing her virtue. What happens once she has spoken will depend on the politics of this monarchy. Nevertheless, she upholds her honour and the value of private life by committing suicide. Her death offers proof of her spiritual purity. It is also an exercise of power; Lucretia using her persona to influence public decisions - her self-sacrifice has a demonstration effect that cannot be ignored. It is a plea for justice (or revenge) and a performance designed to sway others’ feelings.15 Lucretia an actress and a tragic heroine; and, we must not overlook it, a shrewd politician who knows how to sway the masses.
Mary Beard’s bracketed comments divest this act of its mythic force. It downgrades the importance of her suicide and so makes Lucretia a plaything of male writers. She thus denies Lucretia her heroism. In this 21st century version private life is equated with ordinary living and domestic trivia. This disenchants the legend and diminishes both Lucretia and the sphere in which she rules.16 Historically private life may have been less important than public life, precisely because it was a female realm, but that does not mean it had no value at all.17 Or that it was without its own sources of power.18 Like the public domain it had its codes and conventions, which could give women a relative freedom, and place restrictions on the men. The home, because it was as much an artificial construction as public life, had its own ideals, which could both empower the wife and bind the husband;19 Lucretia committing suicide to force her menfolk to live up to the male ideal.
‘Sextus Tarquinius. He it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death - and his, too, if you are men.’ (Livy, The Early History of Rome, tr. by Aubrey de Sélincourt)
Her demand that men act like men has the necessary effect. Lucretia’s heroic spirit enters Brutus…
All looked at him in astonishment: a miracle had happened - he was a changed man. Obedient to his command, they swore their oath. Grief was forgotten in the sudden urge of anger, and when Brutus called upon them to make war, from that instant, upon the tyrant’s throne, they took him for their leader.
The men will decide the prince’s fate. They do so because of Lucretia’s powerful intervention, which determines their conduct. We witness a sort of metempsychosis, whereby a woman kills herself and her spirit enters the body of Brutus, transforming him into a hero. Here is a symbol of how the power of private (essentially female) life, with its rich resources of feeling and idealism, can revivify a weak public (principally male) domain.20 The men will now act. But it is the spirit of Lucretia that rules them.
This power was unleashed through a private transgression. Philomela’s tongue is ripped out to stop such a transgression from being known to others. She is denied the right to speak in public not by a man acting in a public capacity but by a private individual who fears disclosure; and who rightly assumes that other men will punish him for his actions. This horrific act - a sort of leif motif of this essay - arises out of the fear of the public domain, a place where the rapist expects to be subjected to justice. If Philomela could speak in a public forum she would not only be listened to, but she would convince the men to act on her behalf (or at least this is what her attacker believes). A violation of private life gives her the opportunity to enter the public domain, where she will exercise the power that comes with her rank. Her tongue is cut out to stop her entering this domain. It is an act of cruelty that occurs in a private place.
Both stories assume women have the right to speak publicly if their virtue has been violated. Lucretia is successful, but pays a high penalty; Philomela is prevented from exercising her natural right, and must find another way of exposing her attacker, which she does with skill and cunning. Despite all the obstacles even she can make her crime known. What these stories suggest is the bounded nature of the public domain; it is an essentially male institution to which women have access under certain conditions. But they have that right, and only the pathological will try to stop them.
Of course this is not all the story. Of course it isn’t! Bringing the private person into the public domain can electrify it… for good and for evil.21 It is possible this may be one of the implicit meanings in this legend - a private deed has the power to destroy a dynasty, and we should therefore be wary of transgressing the private sphere and unleashing such forces that exist there. When Brutus retails the king’s crimes many of them are injustices to individuals…
Today such transgressions appear less dangerous because the boundaries between public and private life are more porous, and are not delineated by gender and fraught with sexual overtones.22 Nevertheless, the dangers are there, as Mary Beard reminds us.
Some of these same issues of voice and gender have to do with internet trolls, death-threats and abuse. We have to be careful about generalising too confidently about the nastier sides of the internet: they appear in many different forms (it’s not quite the same on Twitter, for example, as it is under the line in a newspaper comment section), and criminal death threats are a different kettle of fish from merely ‘unpleasant’ sexist abuse. Many different people are the targets, from grieving parents of dead teenagers to ‘celebrities’ of all kinds. What is clear is that many more men than women are the perpetrators of this stuff, and they attack women far more than they attack men (one academic study put the ratio at something like 30 to 1, female to male targets). For what it’s worth (and I haven’t suffered anything like as much as some women), I receive something we might euphemistically call an ‘inappropriately hostile’ response (that’s to say, more than fair criticism or even fair anger) every time I speak on radio or television.
It’s driven, I’m sure, by many different things. Some of it’s from kids acting up; some from people who’ve had far too much to drink; some from people who for a moment have lost their inner inhibitors (and can be very apologetic later). More are sad than are villainous. When I’m feeling charitable I think quite a lot comes from people who feel let down by the false promises of democratisation blazoned by, for example, Twitter. It was supposed to put us directly in touch with those in power, and open up a new democratic kind of conversation. It does nothing of the sort: if we tweet the prime minister or the pope, they no more read it than if we send them a letter – and for the most part, the prime minister doesn’t even write the tweets that appear under his name. How could he? (I’m not so sure about the Pope.) Some of the abuse, I suspect, is a squeal of frustration at those false promises, taking aim at a convenient traditional target (‘a gobby woman’). Women are not the only ones who may feel themselves ‘voiceless’.
The assumption here is that Twitter, the internet (and magazine stories and newspaper columnists) are part of the public domain. I’m not sure they are. They are closer to a public place than a public institution. They resemble the square outside the town hall rather than the town hall itself; an area used overwhelmingly for private purposes - eating, talking, resting, reading, busking etc etc. In contrast, the public domain, as Marquand rightly says, is a social construction. It has its own conventions; its own moral codes; and its own mythologies; it has its own spirit which though embodied in a limited number of institutions at the same time transcends them. A public space is simply a place where a heterogenous bunch of people meet and do contingent and personal things. Though people may talk politics there such talk is irrelevant. Conversing with a friend outside Hackney Town Hall about the Labour Party is an entirely private matter. It cannot compare with an MP making a speech in the Houses of Parliament or some respected commentator writing in The Times. And it is not only because they reach a mass audience. Within the institutions of the public domain there is a level of purpose, seriousness, rigour and consequence that lifts such talk above ordinary discourse, although it doesn't follow that it is more informed and insightful - limitations of intellect, culture and corporate interest affect all public institutions, which are more interested in doing things than thinking about them.23 The one institution that has existed to think, and which has historically set itself apart, is the university, although this seems to be changing; its purpose now to support and validate the society rather than to think for itself.24 To influence this domain a private person has to take it as seriously as the practitioners themselves. If they do so they will occupy this odd place - as an informed citizen, campaigner or intellectual gadfly - even though they exist outside the official spaces created by the institutions. Such activity creates a general culture where the idea of the public is valued (I almost wrote sanctified), and which forces people who want to participate in it to raise themselves above their ordinary selves.25 We have to work hard to be good citizens. It is a performance that requires careful preparation - lines learnt, the part rehearsed, make-up applied; the costumes well-chosen - if we want to be taken seriously.26 Though perhaps not too seriously, eh?
Newspapers are an interesting case. They are simultaneously a public place and an institution of the public domain. Although over the last twenty years the public service aspect of their work has diminished; taken over by financial conglomerates today they are more interested in using opinion to sell themselves than being a site of informed comment.27 Celebrity. Scandal. Grotesquerie. Moral Outrage. And squeezed in between these big earners the charity cases: the well-informed article and the carefully considered column. Sensible souls surrounded by freaks.
Before the internet there was plenty of confusion between a public sphere and a public space. The internet has made this confusion worse, until now it is often hard to tell the difference between them. Indeed, today private space is often mistaken for public space; the latter treated as if it were just another room in one’s house - “Ethel shut that f**king noise off!” Mary Beard intervenes in a public debate with an informed and well-constructed case; then individuals in their own private spaces abuse her. Gone is the distance between public argument and private prejudice. The discourse of a public realm relied on a large measure of rationality and was founded on conventions of civility that cannot easily cope with the idiocies of automatic thought and raw feeling. In a community hall the abusers are a minority, and can be controlled within the atmosphere of the meeting itself; this is not so on the internet, where it is harder to curb one’s own reactions - reading an article on our laptops we remain purely private beings, and so are liable to react in an emotional and reflexive way. And this is not all! We can now publicly air this outrage without thought of the consequences, because it is quick to do so (efficiency the great destroyer of civilised behaviour), while we can remain (essentially) anonymous. The most sophisticated of technologies is reducing us to animals… People can now act in public just as they do in the most protected of private places. On the internet a public space is reduced to the four walls of a household toilet.
What can be done? David Marquand offers some wise words about recreating the public domain.
Social learning implies diversity, pluralism, difference… Differences need protection. Pressures for centralisation are omnipresent; and they have been enhanced, not weakened, by the communications revolution. The central state can always find good reasons for arrogating power to itself - social justice, say, or economic efficiency, or public safety in the ‘war’ against terrorism. All governments - even governments of pluralistic liberals - have a built-in propensity for self-aggrandisement and uniformity. The only way to curb that propensity is to create alternative power centres. As James Madison once put it, ‘ambition must be made to counter ambition’. The best defence against the arrogance of power is power.28
How does this translate into the theme of Mary Beard’s essay? A way has to be discovered to protect a truly public speech from a mere private comment; it is a recognition that these are separate activities, and that the latter is inherently corrosive of civilised discourse. We have to recognise that a democracy of knowledge has to be limited to the few - to the well informed and those who are prepared to take to the time to understand and intelligently engage with a problem of public concern. The public domain is a place for a minority. Of course this goes against our egalitarian instincts. So be it! Amateurs do not play in the Premier League, and we accept that as a given.29 Indeed, it is part of our common sense understanding of how football works in this country. The same ways of thinking need to applied to the public domain, and intellectual activity generally. We need a protected place where serious subjects can be discussed seriously, and where anyone can participate providing they behave with civility. The public domain overlaps with a modern democracy, but cannot be reduced to it. Everyone can vote and everyone has a right to an opinion, although neither of these has much intrinsic value.30 It is not The People who make us free. It is a civilised elite that do so. Bertrand Russell was right. It is the leisure class we have to thank for our humane culture. Our task to extend that class beyond the wealthy; not to wipe it out entirely.31 It is the quality of the public domain that safeguards society and makes for a civilised life. It requires civilised people for its existence. Such a place cannot be open to all, but only to those who accept its rules of membership, which should have little to do with the contents of the discourse, but only with the forms in which it is uttered. It must welcome critical outsiders, providing they act in a reasonable and rational manner. The problem of our old public institutions, as Marquand so acutely notes, were their exclusivity and confidence, and their tendency to overvalue their own expertise. Shutting out the public they made many serious mistakes, which eventually led to a crisis in their legitimacy; whose effects we are still experiencing today.32
The mass media is no longer the place for the public domain. Twitter? Comment is Free? Question Time? To talk politics in these forums is like holding an academic seminar in Leicester Square. The mass media are little more than pub landlords who pay entertainers to attract customers whose sarcasm, abuse, and a propensity to chuck the occasional beer glass in the direction of the stage, are all signs of a tidy profit.
Of course I exaggerate. But we must exaggerate! Let us invent the idea that the mass media is a polluter of civilised discourse on an industrial scale. We don’t swim in a river if it is full of toxic material… Believe this and… a truly public domain can be constructed within the internet itself. It is the perfect place for it.33 Indeed, it already contains many truly public institutions - Democracy Now! and the LRB are two examples. Mary Beard’s lecture shows what can be done; the LRB a space that protects her from the abuse of the junk heads who hear only their own prejudices - letters are printed that are only reasonable in tone.
The public domain is an ascetic place. The internet is its complete opposite. It is Oxford Street almost any time of the week. For most people a highly intelligent conversation about current affairs is the equivalent of those lunatics who stand on street corners and quote the bible through their megaphones. To the majority such activity is pointless and mad. Recognise this and we realise that the mass media is not the place to visit if we want a quiet life, full of reason and fine sense. Only prejudices thrive there. For a few decades some newspapers believed they should have a more elevated purpose. This ethos is disappearing. Since the 1990s it is clear that they have returned to their old functions - to make money and to act as a loudspeaker for their owners’ views. They encourage the worst in all of us.
It is hard to raise ourselves above our animal nature and to actually think. The mass media and the internet exaggerate the worse aspects of our minds, which would rather jog and skip and float through life than stop and investigate it.34 Internet addicts tend to be information junkies, who rarely burrow beneath the surface of their often very simple arguments; they are like tourists always looking ahead to their next destination.35 A true understanding requires a slower approach to life. To understand someone else’s ideas is much harder than it appears at first sight - we have to absorb both the content and the texture of the thought that went into an idea before we can properly think about it. But such characters are being left behind, as even knowledge is being redefined in our swifter age.36 And then there are those those are not so clever, who are even stupid; a far higher proportion than we care to admit in a society that puts such a high premium on intelligence.37
I should end here. But there is something else I want to say. The public domain wasn’t only made by men. It was made by men who were self-consciously members of an intellectual elite. Here may be another reason why so many people attack Mary Beard when she talks politics. The vitriol caused not so much because she is woman, although that it is clearly a significant factor, but because she is a don. Many men liked Margaret Thatcher, a politician with a genius for confirming populist prejudices.38 She was truly one of us… On the other hand, to actually think about a problem and come up with an intelligent answer is quite an alien activity, and can be a threat to those who rely on custom and habit for their ideas about the world - that is, the majority. Such thoughtful behaviour is an unconscious sign of superiority that many - and especially men - cannot stand. The conventional opinion. The cliché. The same old words. These are what The People expect, indeed much of their identity is welded to these old and comfortable ideas. To question such ideas is to directly attack these people, who will therefore not respond with detachment. Writing about literature Proust captures this more general problem.
For when a writer reads a book, the closeness of social observation, the slant towards pessimism or optimism, are accepted conditions which he does not dispute, which he does not even begin to see. But for “intelligent” readers the fact that something may be ”untrue” or “dismal” is a defect in the author himself, which they are astonished and rather pleased to find recurring, and even being made more of, in each of his books, as if he had not been able to get the better of it, and which finally makes them see him in the disagreeable light of a person who is always wrong-headed or who has a depressing effect on one, so much so that whenever the bookseller hands then a Balzac or a George Eliot, they push it away, saying: “No, thank you! It’s bound to be untrue, or gloomy, this new one will be worse than the rest, I’ve had enough of it.” (By Way of Sainte-Beuve)
For those outside the craft the tendency is to conflate the writer with their book, the product with the person, the official with the institutional role they perform. In the layman’s mind there is no conception of a culture that exists independently of the adepts who work in it. They thus have no idea that it is this culture which has to be understood before the words of the writer, or the actions of an official, can be properly grasped; for it is that culture that gives context and thus meaning to individual utterances. Instead, the outsider will only consider the immediate and superficial aspects (the “errors”, the general feel, the appearance - “untrue” or “dismal” to use Proust’s words), which they then personalise. Today, of course, we all live in a world of outsiders.39
To an outsider the writer and her novel are identical. The characters express the author’s own views on life; so that if we don’t like them we condemn her for being boring or old-fashioned, foolish and prejudiced.40 Indeed, it is precisely because we are outsiders that we value the novelist above their novel; their physical presence far more important than the words inside their books.41
Politics turns such attitudes into extremes. Not only are views polarised (and encouraged to be so - both by the press and the politicians, though for differing reasons), but many who consume these polemics have no understanding of either politics or of their own intellectual limitations. An intelligent and well-argued intervention exposes these weaknesses. The response is immediate: hatred of the person who is forcing them to think outside their established patterns of thought. Given time to reflect, such an arduous and eccentric activity as thinking might produce a critical but reasonable response. I hope this piece is a case study in such a process. Not many people are so patient. It is easier not to think. Far simpler to excise the pain of thought. And boy can it be painful - the agony when one is forced to get off the conveyer belt of our oft-repeated opinions….
Mary Beard: what have you done! You are highly intelligent, and a member of an elite. You are doubly privileged. And hooray for that! For these are all good things. But… in today’s populist culture they are regarded with suspicion and disdain. It is worse that you are woman. You make all those stupid males feel stupid, in just in the place where they thought were safe to air their commonplaces. What have you done, Professor Beard!
You have forgotten the amount of power that you have.42 Given the right situation you have both the intelligence and the confidence to dominate the people you meet. You exercise such power through your status; your presence; and yes, your voice.43 A woman doesn't need to act like a man to have power: her position and her social background can be sufficient in themselves. There is a huge divide between your culture and that of the many who read about you in the Daily Mail or The Telegraph. The class resentment can be huge. The internet the best forum ever devised to express it.
We have to make a distinction between a gender bias within the public domain and misogyny in the society as a whole, which itself is connected with a prejudice against the intellectual aristocracy (when it questions deeply held prejudices). The one is relatively easy to change, and has anyway changed enormously in 50 years. The other is a much harder problem, because it is so closely tied to both the structure of power and to the myths of the age - the economic power that depends upon consumption, and the myth that fundamentally we are all equal. As you demonstrate constantly. We are not. Thank god for that!44 Or should I pay tribute to Athena….
1. The best description of its alienating power to those outside its walls is Kafka’s The Castle.
2. Pierre Bourdieu makes the same point about the French elite, though his language is more convoluted and condemnatory - he wants to unmask and delegitimate as well as understand.
“The noblesse de robe, of which contemporary technocrats are the structural heirs (and sometimes the descendants), is a body that created itself by creating the state, a body that, in order to build itself, had to build the state, that is, among other things, an entire political philosophy of “public service” as service to the state, or to the “public” - and not simply to the king, as with the former nobility - and of this service as a “disinterested” activity, directed toward universal ends. “Service to the king” is an attribute inscribed as it were in the social definition of nobility, as the equation “to live nobly” is “to serve the king” reminds us. Its destiny that the nobility has neither to choose nor to create since it is incumbent upon it by birth, an ascription imposed upon it was a given if it is truly what it is, that is, what it must be, and if it wishes to “maintain its rank,” that is, realise its essence. In contrast, “public service” as devotion to the state is less an inheritance than a delineated choice of vocation, a consciously assumed occupation (Beruf) that presupposes particular dispositions and talents as well as special skills acquired through study.” (The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power).The book is one long attempt to show that this state nobility is based more on inheritance than talent; and that the French education system masks the real social relations that dominate the country. School, meant to be a “liberating” force, actually works to fix the existing social structure.
Though there is a tension in Bourdieu’s work, for it also describes how a less vigorous academic tradition has arisen since the Second World, and particularly from the 1960s. And reading this book one begins to wonder about 1968. Was it actually an attempt by the children of the French elite to smash the meritocracy that the older educational system encouraged (Bourdieu calls the older grand Écoles institutions of the Third Republic), and which was a threat to its less academically talented members? The Sixties not an uprising of the oppressed, but a counter-revolution of the privileged. Such a view would explain many of the anomalies Roger Scruton describes in his fascinating essay on the French intellectual class (Confessions of a Sceptical Francophile); although we should discount his political analysis, which is weak - Bourdieu is the better guide.
3. The link between non-conformist religion and local government is bought out superbly in Asa Briggs’ Victorian Cities.
4. For an interesting memoir by a successful woman under this regime who did not suffer from male prejudice see Mary Midgley’s The Owl of Minerva.
5. It existed elsewhere, especially on the continent in countries like France and Germany; and which may have been the inspiration for what happened in Britain (France certainly inspired for Matthew Arnold, one of the most prominent advocates of a public culture). And yet there were many differences, particularly in regard to the power of the state, and its ability to infiltrate and shape the whole of the culture (the difference in emphasis between Bourdieu and H.C.G. Matthew is telling).
I have analysed some of the consequences of this state-centred public morality in my pieces on Effi Briest, of which the best starting point is possibly, The Dangers of Philosophy.
6. Thatcher successfully implemented this transformation. Although various attempts had previously been made in the 1960s (the Civil Service) and in the 1970s (local government). (John Dearlove, The Reorganisation of British Local Government and Peter Hennessy, Whitehall.)
These were all attempts at breaking a culture believed to be the cause of Britain’s relative economic decline; a culture that had ruled the country from at least the early 19th century (and possibly a century before that), and which started to collapse in the late 1950s. The result was that from the early 1960s through to the early 1980s the British elite suffered an identity crisis. It literally had a mental breakdown. Unfortunately, it has since recovered…. (See my Freedom Against Freedom.)
7. Of course there is nothing wrong with an institution using such techniques to manage its resources. The problems start when they enter areas where popularity and cost are irrelevant to quality.
“Our National Student Survey (NSS) satisfaction results are consistently excellent. In the most recent NSS, teaching satisfaction remains very high at 97% (up from 96% in 2012), with 100% of respondents saying that our "staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching", and "the course is intellectually stimulating". Our overall satisfaction rating was 95%.” (Philosophy department, Kings College, London)
We have no idea of the quality of the people completing these questionnaires, or what the teaching entails, although we note the word “enthusiastic”, which suggests that the content of what people teach is less important than the feelings they generate about it - just like modern advertising.
Interestingly, Kings College prefers the views of its consumers (students) to that of its producers (the faculty) when it comes to advertising its services. And yet consumers are largely ignorant of the stuff they buy; though we can make distinctions on the superficial differences between products - we can tell when one package has a bright yellow label with a smiling dandelion, and another that is dark brown with no pictures at all.
8. I have worked in an organisation where an induction was retitled fun day, and where we were expected to confide personal details about ourselves. This may create the illusion that colleagues are actually friends. A mistake that can lead to painful consequences when we expect the appearance of affection to be backed up by real and sustained commitment.
9. George Monbiot gives a good example in Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain.
“When, on 16 July 1997, the MEPs arrived at the steps of the European Parliament in Strasbourg to vote on the directive, they were confronted by a sight which would have struck terror into the heart of any delegate: a dozen wheelchair-bound people wearing T-shirts printed with the slogan ‘Patents for Life’ were noisily protesting that they were about to be denied the chance of a cure… Several MEPs were visibly affected by the sight, and later confessed that the demonstration had influenced their decision. The directive was passed.” (My emphasis.)
10. See Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man for how the attempt to be authentic actually restricts our freedom.
There is also personal experience, which reveals some curious anomalies, such as that outsiders can be upset, but not those who inhabit the prevailing consensus.
In a training course on “diversity” an “expert trainer” told me that an evangelical Christian who was opposed to abortion could not ask her two colleagues to stop talking about it, because such an intervention would disturb them. The assumption is that their views are the truth and require sensitive treatment, while the Christian’s are straight prejudice, and any feelings attached to them are mistaken or irrelevant. The woman should therefore remain silent. When I pointed out that both views needed consideration, and that the problem isn’t about deciding between them but how to mediate what is a highly complex dispute, it was I who was treated as the heretic. The trainer had assumed that I was the evangelical Christian, an odd and dogmatic person. In fact it was a thought experiment designed to test his ideas. The result was fascinating: this “expert trainer” in “diversity” had no conception of a worldview different from his own. His role to enforce it upon the rest of us; no matter how much it upsets those who disagree with him.
What is particularly striking in this encounter is that a rational approach to a controversial topic provokes the irrational response. It is the rational questioner who is treated as toxic. It is the same in politics. An abstracted reason pollutes most political discussion, because it is out of place there. It is too detached. Too indifferent to the emotional effects these sensitive subjects unleash. The rational person who believes they can have a reasonable conversation in such an environment is a heretic. We can go further: they are insane! They have forgotten that the foundations of most social thought is emotional, and has no connection at all to knowledge and logic. Knowledge? Logic? They are threats to views that are little more than a feeling.
11. Much of this comes from personal experience and observation. The managers in public sector institutions have changed significantly over the last twenty five years. They are a different type than they were before, a type I try to explain in Freedom Against Freedom.
See also MM McCabe’s opening comments in her valedictory lecture: to be critical of the institution in which she works she must speak in a personal capacity only. The university obsessed with its appearance to the outside world must protect its image; no employee thus allowed to besmirch its brand. This leads to curious effects, especially in a university as prestigious as Kings College. Its prestige depends upon the quality of its professionals; but to attract business it must ignore their opinions in favour of those that are ignorant of what makes it uniquely valuable - prospective students and the government departments that provide the funds.
12. Although the control mechanism of close proximity seems to be weakening. I talked to a councillor recently who told me that attacks upon local politicians is common.
13. Let’s have a quick look at a review page in the Financial Times, a place we would expect a relatively rational commentary. There are four comments to the review of Marquand’s new book.
The first is completely stupid - it is literally without content. One comment is incoherent, but is making at least a valid point - 21st century British culture cannot be understood separately from America’s influence. A third provides a helpful link; while the last is a reply to a comment; it has nothing to do with the original review, and gives off the fumes of a toxic conspiracy theory.
Whatever feelings this generates in the reader, what is clear is that two orders of thought and composition are on show here. Maybe the comments are little more than graffiti on an outside wall; occasionally striking, but often intrusive and crass. Or perhaps they have a bigger impact. It is possible that because they are more pithy and raw they will have the greater after-effects….
14. Today the verdict would be decided inside a specialist institution of the public domain that is yet designed to be insulated from it. A recognition that justice being so difficult and so fragile has to be independent of public influence, at least in regard to individual cases.
This raises a curious thought, which I don’t want to explore here: is the discourse of the public domain only suitable for talking about generalities - at least in its widest and most popular forums? The core problem of such discourse that it doesn't recognise how limited are such generalities for understanding particular cases; the substance of not only justice, but of most of the content of our lives. For acute commentary see the Isaiah Berlin quote in my Yes! Yes! Yes!
15. In Livy’s account there are two quite distinct aspects to the suicide. Inside the home Lucretia argues she must kill herself because she is unchaste. Later her dead body is presented to the crowd to stir them up to support an attack on the tyrant.
16. The scene is complicated and I do not altogether understand it. For although Lucretia gives the convincing reason that she must die to prove her “heart is innocent”, she also talks about being unchaste. Thus at first reading her suicide seems unnecessary, even nonsensical - both she and her family agree that although she has been violated her spirit remains intact, and she is therefore blameless.
“The promise was given. One after another they tried to comfort her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind, they said, that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be any guilt.”In reply Lucretia says: “What is due to him...is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve.’”
This seems incoherent - why should an innocent woman deserve to die? An explanation may be found when we go back to earlier in the scene, where we find that Lucretia wielded to Sextus only when he threatened her with public dishonour - he would kill both her and a slave to create the impression that she was murdered whilst committing adultery. For Lucretia such public disgrace is worse than her private dishonour. That is: she sacrifices her virtue for her public reputation. Here, perhaps, is the source of her sense of guilt - it is her “mind…that sinned”. Faced with an impossible choice she chose what she thought was the lesser of the two evils. Nevertheless it was an evil, as she did choose to give up her virtue. She therefore feels, and perhaps rightly, that she has committed a crime and must die.*
Lucretia is thinking in absolutes. There is nothing relative about her virtue. And she emphasises this with her reference to precedent. The idea of virtue must be protected. It must remain unadulterated. There must be no doubt, no uncertainty about it. The idea must survive as a strong and compelling force; but this can only be done if she kills herself, for by compromising the idea - by preferring her public reputation - she has weakened it. Only her suicide can restore it to rude health.
The men see the world differently. Lucretia makes a distinction between the heart, which is innocent, and the body that is violated; while the men talk of a guilty mind and an unviolated body - because there was no intention behind the act. Three ideas are coexisting here: about the body, about the mind, and about the spirit. But there is a disagreement between the sexes, based on the different emphasis they give to these ideas.
For Lucretia honour is attached to the body, in a way the heart (the spirit) isn’t. This suggests that for her her body is more than a physical thing: there is an idea - her honour - fused with it. They cannot be separated out. Both have equal value. This has wider implications… because her body contains within it an idea it is more than a corporeal entity, it is also a symbol which has public significance. The implications of this are immense, and her menfolk touch on it - ‘the mind… that sinned”. For Lucretia the decision-making process before the rape is just as important as the act itself. By allowing the rape she has violated the idea of honour, although at the same time she has upheld it publicly. This is her double-bind - she has sacrificed her body to preserve the idea associated with it, but in doing she has allowed the idea to be violated as well. In a strange kind of way she has acted like a man: preferring the public domain to her own. Is this her transgression? Is Professor Beard right after all? We could argue that ultimately this is the reason for her death, but that seems too modern an interpretation to put upon it - it is the modern suspicion of all idealism and the search for root causes. Better surely to argue that she sacrifices herself to maintain the idea of female honour. In this way Lucretia remains a heroine, and not merely a victim of male writers.
In contrast, the men make a distinction between the body and the mind. The mind has sinned because it has made a choice to allow the body to be violated; but that choice (and the mind that made it) is less important than the spirit that animates the body. And because that spirit has remained pure so has the body.
All agree the spirit is pure. Therefore all agree that Lucretia is innocent. But they disagree on the ideas associated with the body. For Lucretia the idea and the body are one - she doesn’t say her mind sinned but that her honour is lost. Therefore morally as well as physically she is unchaste - Sextus Tarquinius has not only violated her body but the idea attached to it. The men, in contrast, separate the mind from the body, and condemn only the former, to which they give a much lower value. For them the mind is guilty, but the body and the spirit are innocent. Lucretia will not accept this. She will not allow her ideas (her mind) to be separated from her body in this way. Allow this and they are both devalued. Lucretia dies to live up her own principles, which she believes are just as important as those of the men - “What is due to him… is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment.” Both parties have been wronged. And they both have to make a choice based on their sense of the justice of the case; the one is a public act involving other men, Lucretia’s is a private sacrifice that nevertheless has public significance - it proves her innocence (to the world at large) and upholds the idea of wifely virtue. By committing suicide she is asserting her rights as a woman, and arguing for an equality between the sexes; an equality based on their differences.
*It is interesting to compare Lucretia to Innstetten in Fontane’s Effi Briest. They are very much alike, although for her there are principles that apply to the home which are just as valid and powerful as those that apply to the public realm. (For analysis of Innstetten’s character see my One Smile Was Enough, It was an Earthquake.)
17. "In the late 1940s a niece of my father’s came to stay with us and asked Betty’s advice on how to become a writer, the response was: you should get married as soon as possible and have children. You have to conform with the outside world, do all the ritual of domesticity of being a wife and mother - but keep the true faith to yourself and hide every trace of it.” (Sarah Miller writing about her mother, Betty Miller, author of one of the great novels about the Second World War, On the Side of the Angels).
Experiences like this, with the opportunities they provided (to those with the talent and luck to use them), are in danger of being lost.
18. There were times when this private world could rule the public one. Here is Montesquieu on the reign of Louis XIV.
“The thing is that, for every man who has any post at court, in Paris, or in the country, there is a woman through whose hands pass all the favours and sometimes the injustices that he does. These women are all in touch with one another, and compose a sort of commonwealth whose members are always busy giving each other mutual help and support.
“It is like another state within the state, and a man who watches the actions of ministers, officials, or prelates at court, in Paris or in the country, without knowing the women who rule them, is like a man who can see a machine in action but does not know what makes it work.” (Letter 107. Persian Letters. See also the translator’s comments).
Of course Montesquieu is exaggerating for comic effect. Nevertheless, the truth in this observation is that although women were technically excluded from power they could exercise it through their own private sphere. What has happened since this time, and which Montesquieu shows in the process of occurring - France is clearly a modern country already in the early 1700s -, is the growing importance of a separate public realm. It is possible that it was this public realm that reduced women’s power; for as it increasingly separated itself from private life it became exclusively male; a process which reached its apogee in the 19th century, when women found themselves excluded from all formal politics; the effects of which are sympathetically dramatised in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?
For an example of how a woman can use the domestic sphere to be more powerful than the men see my analysis of Ran - In the Knacker’s Yard.
19. See Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right for what happens when the husband tries to enforce the moral code on his wife too strictly. In so doing he transgresses the decorum of family life and his wife (justifiably) rejects it, causing him to suffer a terrible decline. A more ambiguous case is Wallachia Petrie, the American intellectual who talks incessantly of politics. On level one we can see it as a satirical attack both on Americans and women intellectuals, but on another level it describes the inadequacy of a public discourse divorced from the particularities of individual cases. Everything is turned into an abstraction. Thus Wallachia cannot accept that her friend Caroline Spalding will marry an English aristocrat. It offends her republican and anti-British ideas.
It is interesting to compare two novels written fifty years apart to get a sense of how the the balance between the male public domain and the female domestic sphere has changed since the 19th century.
In her novel At Mrs Lippincote’s Elizabeth Taylor shows the wife breaking free of the conventions that rule her marriage to assert the primacy of her own views. In contrast to Effi Briest the heroine of this book doesn't allow the conventions of the public realm to dominate her life. At first she creates a space for her own sensibility; while later she destroys the social fictions that have ruled her husband’s conduct. In this novel the private sphere triumphs, and the woman is set free - not to divorce but to be an independent person within the marriage. This suggests that by the end of the Second World War the grip of the public domain was weakening… at least in some social circles… the first signs of the later revolt? Of course it is one work of fiction amongst thousands, but we wonder and we speculate.
20. This is brilliantly captured in Satyajit Ray’s The Big City.
21. An example is “Elizabeth I’s belligerent address to the troops at Tilbury in 1588 in the face of the Spanish Armada.” Although Professor Beard would take away the Queen’s power:
“In the words many of us learned at school, she seems positively to avow her own androgyny: ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too’ – an odd slogan to get young girls to learn. In fact, it is quite likely that she never said anything of the sort. There is no script from her hand or that of her speech-writer, no eye-witness account, and the canonical version comes from the letter of an unreliable commentator, with his own axe to grind, written almost forty years later. But for my purpose the probable fictionality of the speech makes it even better: the nice twist is that the male letter-writer puts the boast (or confession) of androgyny into Elizabeth’s own mouth.”
I don’t say that this interpretation is wrong, only that it overlooks the power that such a confession unleashes. It is the power that is released through a transgression; a power Professor Beard is ready to recognise in a slightly different context.
“The smartest ancient rhetorical theorists were prepared to acknowledge that the best male techniques of oratorical persuasion were uncomfortably close to the techniques (as they saw it) of female seduction. Was oratory then really so safely masculine, they worried.”
Is androgyny such a bad thing? Surely this represents the most perfect form for the public official whose identity must exist outside of gender. The male of the older Civil Service was not the same male who once hunted in the forest or who today watches England lose at football. Although clearly a male he was a constructed out of a particular type of man. We can quite easily see such an official role incorporating aspects of the female gender, and yet remain essentially androgynous, indeed it has been happening for the last fifty years. We could make it more explicit - dressing up our public servants to look like the Indian princes of old would be an interesting experiment in using symbols to shape realities.
22. It is the difference in the attitude to women that is the central theme of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. The harem is a symbol of a completely insulated private female realm. In Paris, in contrast, both sexes meet in public on terms of equality. This can occur because the value of the sexual act has changed. In Paris sex has been disenchanted, and infidelities are allowed providing they remain discreet. Women are freer to act, but they have lost their honour - the translator believes there may only be one woman in all of Europe who the Persians think is chaste.
Translated into 21st century terms we can see that the abuse of women who enter the public realm may have less to do with misogyny than with a residual feeling that women are transgressing their natural sphere; degrading themselves, and polluting a place that should be for males only. (Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo may offer us a guide to this sensitive topic.)
23. One of the problems of academic writing on politics is that over-intellectualises the activity. For two books that brings out this contrast see Samuel H. Beer’s Modern British Politics, which contains many clever ideas, and Ian Gilmour’s The Body Politic, which debunks most of them.
24. Watch MM McCabe’s valedictory lecture to see what is happening to our best universities, which are increasingly acting like private companies.
25. Matthew Arnold describes it with his usual luminous intelligence:
“Literary criticism’s most important function is to try books as to the influence which they are calculated to have upon the general culture of single nations or of the world at large. Of this culture literary criticism is the appointed guardian, and on this culture all literary works may be conceived as in some way or other operating. All those works have a special professional criticism to undergo: theological works that of theologians, historical works that of historians, philosophical works that of philosophers, and in this case each kind of work is tried by a separate standard. But they have also a general literary criticism to undergo, and this tries them all, as I have said, by one standard - their effect upon general culture. Everyone is not a theologian, a historian, or a philosopher, but everyone is interest in the advance in the general culture of his nation or of mankind. A criticism, therefore, which, abandoning a thousand special questions which may be raised about any book, tries it solely in respect of its influence upon this culture, brings it thereby within the sphere of everyone’s interest.”
Stefan Collini’s gloss on this passage is marvellous:
“It requires the exercise of cultivated judgement, formed by responsive engagement with work of the highest standard. ‘Literary criticism’ is the name Arnold was here giving to this task of general judgement.” (Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait)
Reading these words and reflecting on John Gross’, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, it seems to me that the old Man of Letters needs to be resuscitated from his terminal condition; although of course the name will have to be changed.
26. Richard Sennett has many wonderful things to say about this in his seminal The Fall of Public Man.
27. A devastating account is given by Nick Davies in his Flat Earth News.
28. Compare these comments with those of MM McCabe in her valedictory lecture. The ability to generate and reconcile differences within a complex conversation requires a relatively small number of people.
The problem of the public domain is that it has been invaded by mass culture, which does not recognise and is not interested in acquiring the knowledge and the conventions that allow for the exploration of a subject through sustained and reasoned argument. The internet has exaggerated this by effectively turning knowledge into information; the process whereby a conclusion is reached is thus ignored entirely, because only the conclusion is regarded as important - it has become a fact, and can be used as such. For a wonderful illustration of this point see the conversation between MM McCabe and Cornel West. McCabe is the philosopher interested in the process of thought. West is a salesman who sells the products of other people’s thinking - he has a genius for it!
29. My apologies to MM McCabe - I am stealing her metaphor.
30. Everyone had the right to vote in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. However, voting far from strengthening democracy only confirmed its non-existence.
31. Thus the idea of the basic income. See Ian Gilmour’s Dancing with Dogma: Britain Under Thatcherism, and the recent interventions by Robert Skidelsky.
This is not some plea for an elite. No! It is a demand that people are properly educated to enable them to use their leisure time to engage with life above a level of mere entertainment. Believing in an educated leisure class, we think of ideas to create it… A free university for the unemployed?
32. I discuss this at length in my Freedom Against Freedom.
33. Of course that was its original intention. However, when it left the academy it was transformed into a populist medium. Given the state-capitalist structure of our society this transformation was inevitable.
34. Though the same process appears to be happening in academia, and for the same reasons - the need for mass publication.
“If we want to understand why academics today write as they do, then we should bear in mind one simple fact: in current times academics are writing and publishing as part of their paid employment. We will not get near to understanding what might be going wrong in the social sciences unless we accept this. By and large, academics today are not writing in answer to a higher calling or because they have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of truth. We are, to put it bluntly, hacks who write for a living. This is the unflattering reality from which we need to start.” (Michael Billig, Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences)
More and more words, at quicker and quicker speeds, until… there is no thought left.
35. Definition of a tourist:
“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveller. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another…. [A]nother important difference between tourist and traveller is that the former accepts his own civilisation without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” (Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky)
36. This is one of the secondary themes of MM McCabe’s lecture.
37. Pierre Bourdieu has some magnificent pages on how the conflict between the necessity of having academic qualifications and the limited intellectual abilities of many of the French elite is resolved through redistributing the prestige amongst the country’s top educational institutions, so that places like the École nationale d'administration and HEC, which rely for their recruitment on the sort of social intelligence associated with the culture of the rich and powerful, have risen in status compared to the purely academic establishments like École Normale Supérieure, which have lost some (The State Nobility). Michael Young predicted this would happen many years ago in his The Rise of the Meritocracy; still a classic.
38. Contrary to Mary Beard’s assertion Dennis Kavanagh argues that Margaret Thatcher reduced the tone of her voice not to sound more masculine but to be thought as more sympathetic.
“It is a tribute to the importance of her personality that her advisers have spent much time on her image. They were originally concerned that she appeared too aggressive, shrill, and unsympathetic. Before the 1979 election her public relations adviser, Gordon Reece, coached her to lower her voice, speak slowly , and present a ‘soft’ image and tried to arrange television interviews with relatively non-aggressive interviewers.” (Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of Consensus?)
That is, Thatcher was made to appear more feminine - at least to the British public. Professor Beard by ignoring the political rationale misses what Thatcher actually represents - not the emasculation of a woman’s identity but the revaluing of public life in favour of personal appearance. Public success now associated less with what you do and think but how you appear. And this linked to a crisis of the institutions. Gone is the lofty arrogance, which could openly dismiss the public as ignorant fools. Today, institutions are expected to outwardly conform to the prejudices of a mass audience. Of course inside these places we will hear the same old conceits, although the need to flatter the outside world has its effects, producing acute tensions between the PR and the actual work; all noted by MM McCabe at the end of her lecture.
One could argue that this change is linked to the increase in the numbers of working women. And we could then conclude that the culture of these institutions has been feminised. It is possible that this is the case, although as the Thatcher example shows, the main impetus came from her populist persona; her need to rise above the public domain and appeal to the people directly. Populism relies on common ideas and established habits of thought. Over time, as more women shape and control that culture, these mental habits will change until it may become plain common sense that women are as hard and aggressive and indifferent as men. Or a completely different set of ideas about what constitutes the male gender could emerge.
39. Which produces very strange effects, which I try to explain in my Freedom Against Freedom.
40. For a fascinating exchange about this problem see the arguments between Marilyn Butler and David Lodge over Kingsley Amis’ Stanley and the Women. Of course I, like Marilyn Butler, am inventing an idealisation - no work can be completely divorced from the person, and no individual can be separated totally from the culture.
41. D.J. Enright captures this nicely: a few minutes on television will have more effect than the whole of a writer’s oeuvre (Fields of Vision: Literature, Language, and Television). In this book Enright includes a wonderfully apposite story from Karl Kraus.
“[H]is beaver coat…has been stolen, the whole of Vienna knows about his loss, people pity him, they forgive him, they admire him, they stop him in the street to condole with him. ‘I wrote books, but people understood only the coat.’ His life has been transformed; the solitary and estranged satirist is suddenly ‘in the thick of it, the earth was me again’… But all this solicitude, this unwonted solidarity, is too much for him. Next thing, the tax collectors will realise he was rich enough to own a fur coat. ‘But I still had one hope left: by publishing a new book I might manage to make the Viennese forget me.’”
42. Pierre Bourdieu writes of social capital, and the symbolic power it gives to its recipients, such as professors in the most prestigious universities. He is right (The State Nobility).
43. It is interesting to watch MM McCabe in conversation with Cornel West. Clearly Professor McCabe is a woman with a woman’s voice, and yet for me at least she is the one that brings intellectual danger to the encounter - unlike Professor West I have no idea what she will say next. MM McCabe interrogates ideas, while Cornel West merely quotes them (albeit with great panache and charisma). This gives her an authority as a philosopher that in my opinion Professor West lacks.
These differences may offer one clue for the hostility towards Professor Beard - people don’t like to be scared. For a wonderful illustration of this point see Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish, which shows what happens when an extraordinary intelligence lives amongst ordinary people: some worship it, but others fear and hate it - because they do not understand it, and it makes them feel unsafe. Note particularly the reaction of Rusty James whose increasing confusion over his brother’s apparently irrational behaviour makes him increasingly angry. The Motorcycle Boy is an alien that only a few people can comprehend. He is a thug, who yet has the sensibility of a young woman (there are many references to how he resembles his mother); a combination that makes him unpredictable, and therefore very powerful.
44. Although I need to qualify this statement, for I aIso agree with MM McCabe that equality, by which I take her to mean economic and social equality, generates freedom.