Celebrity Academics

In the neoliberal 1990s Hollywood became the model for elite American universities. Celebrity academics, paid much more than their colleagues in secretive deals, were part of a financing formula that included large capital projects like recreational facilities, satellite campuses and terms abroad. Matched by astronomical student fees, this marketisation of higher education lured students by promising exclusive access to luxury, networking and brand names as much as an education. The irony of this otherwise familiar process lay in the fact that those academic celebrities in the Humanities and Social Sciences who lent their names to this funding formula tended to be critical of neoliberalism and, indeed, of capitalism itself.

If the commodification of radicalism in celebrity culture served to dress the university’s economic model up in fine thoughts, its institutional consequences entailed another kind of masquerade. It was one of my professors at the University of Chicago who in the early years of that decade explained how Hollywood worked in the academy. Because American scholars believed in equality as a democratic ideal, he said, they were suspicious of the intellectual ranking that defined university life and was justified by institutional tests of merit. By questioning the inequalities of class, race and gender hidden in the supposedly neutral idea of merit, they made possible a new way of understanding hierarchy.

Cinematic like academic stars depend on an audience of consumers in a marketplace. And this is what makes celebrity democratic, because luck, looks and formula play such a large role in it that everyone can aspire to such stardom. As the cliché goes, it can happen to anyone, just like winning the lottery. As with the lottery, the promise of stardom requires its aspirants to tolerate their own deprivation in the meantime, and that of their profession more permanently. Hollywood is the only form in which hierarchy is acceptable in America, as the gift of an audience whose abasement before its idols can suddenly be abandoned. The same is true of politicians and their electorates. Everything else is called elitism.

But unlike the politician and more like the Hollywood star, the academic celebrity is not meant to be an everyman or everywoman. Stardom is defined by the manufacture and marketing of a distinctive persona, which in the Humanities and Social Sciences was often marked by a distinctive manner or appearance, arcane vocabulary and difficult ideas. These were just as frequently imported from abroad, mostly France in the decade I am describing, comprising fetishes and other occult objects linked to good fortune. Or perhaps they represented versions of the dynastic marriage, in which the French overcame their historical defeat by the English to finally conquer America by offering it their intellectual pedigrees.

Just like in Hollywood, then, Europeans only became stars in America. Though they carried some of this lustre back to their home countries, the dominance of public universities in such places, with their relatively transparent salary scales and more or less uniform teaching duties, discouraged the development of parallel star systems. In the Humanities and Social Sciences, at least, celebrities also tended to fall into schools of thought which repudiated proper names, the most important being post-structuralism, post-modernism and post-colonialism. These names signalled that critique rather than construction defined the star’s intellectual project, which was inevitably an anti-foundationalist one.        

With all the resentment that it created, academic stardom represented an apparently more democratic, and certainly more entertaining form of intellectual ranking and exclusivity. For it was linked in the minds of its aspirants as much as critics to luck, fortune and formula rather than elitist and institutional tests of merit. Whether in Hollywood or Harvard, after all, the star was an astrological figure who needed to be ‘discovered’ and presented to an audience whose acclaim it was that decided his or her status. Not the expert, exclusive and institutionalised judgement of one’s peers, in other words, but the generalised fandom of moviegoers, students and younger colleagues was what made the celebrity possible.

But celebrity culture has destroyed the very scholars it raised to the empyrean, to say nothing of the star system itself. There are equally intelligent, productive and popular scholars about today, just no new academic stars on the horizon. And the old ones from the nineteen-nineties have either stopped writing or are no longer being read. They may still hold important positions, bestow patronage on their juniors and retain a fan base, but like Easter Island heads, only as monuments from some vanished past. Have American universities changed, or does the celebrity’s decline owe something to the shrinking popularity of Hollywood and its star-driven films among millennial students?

By elevating stars above a professoriate that, however imperfectly, operated as a congregation of equals, universities were able to shift power from faculties to administrators. The lure of stardom not only allowed scholars to break ranks with their peers, but to do so by making common cause with the university administrations that bought their loyalty with the perks and privileges of celebrity. For the star’s audience was no longer the synod or college of cardinals which had served as the ecclesiastical model of the academy, but rather an audience of fee-paying students and their parents together with the academic celebrity’s younger colleagues and would-be successors.

But once the conclave of academics had been destroyed or at least displaced from the centre of power in the university, it was no longer capable of setting the criteria for quality in scholarship. This was now increasingly determined by the intellectual market, which was made up of all kinds of customers. The market for academic stars, it must be said, was often far more exacting than the professoriate had ever been, but it was therefore a limited one by definition. Having undermined the judgement of their peers, then, academic celebrities opened the door to an even greater marketization of scholarship, one which has now made their rather too specialized skills dispensable as well. The intellectual movements that had defined celebrity scholarship by the prefix ‘post’ have therefore given way to individuals given meaning not by a collective project so much as a reading market. 

This shift can be seen in the fate of scholarly disciplines within a new intellectual marketplace. At the height of the academic star system during the 1990s, fields like literature or languages mediated the arrival of new ideas from Europe as well as producing celebrities. This was in part because more traditional disciplines like philosophy were reluctant to entertain such thinkers, and I remember how departments of comparative literature became as trend-setters for those of us in other fields. Today these early homes for yesterday’s stars have ceased to play such a role, not due to any decline in the quality of their research so much as to the size of their markets.

Only three academic fields, science, history and economics, have significant audiences beyond the university, with sociology and religion providing the occasional addition. For popular science, popular history and popular economics actually exist as fields in their own right, each with large numbers of books sold in airports around the world. For a long time, these middle-brow markets were considered unimportant in the world of scholarship, there only to make a bit of money for their embarrassed academic authors. Today, they have become our chief audiences, and in doing so catapulted history and economics, among the non-scientific disciplines, into the scholarly trend-setters of our times.

Sometimes it is possible to write a book that interests scholars as well as the general public, and of course academics have always recognised an obligation to engage with the latter. But when this public becomes the primary audience for universities whose administrators measure intellectual credibility by ‘impact’ and metrics including the speed of production, then something very important about scholarship has been lost. Academics who are less and less interested in writing for a specialised audience of their peers participate in the diminution of their profession and are less and less likely to produce new knowledge as a result—only reams of new information made possible by digitisation and word-processing.

The academic star, at least, was not compelled to address a lay public, and willing to take intellectual risks as a consequence. Whereas the problem of writing for a general audience is that books sold by agents and massaged by the editors of trade presses are likely to be safe. Or they can be ‘provocative’ for the sake of attention and sales. In either case, they tend to look alike, with two- or three-word titles followed by a longer phrase beginning with ‘how’ that is in the past tense for history or the future for economics. This is especially true of books meant to influence government policy, which instead of deploying a vocabulary different from and so challenging to politicians and civil servants, largely adopt what their authors take to be the style favoured by them.

Such worthy scholarship has now become the ideal in a number of disciplines including my own. There is nothing wrong with this work, but it tends not to be very exciting or pathbreaking either. More importantly, it participates in the winnowing down of academic specialisation so as to make it a species of higher journalism. Coinciding with the triumphal march of neoliberalism, the heyday of the celebrity academic began in the closing days of the Cold War and came to an end with the opening salvos of the War on Terror. Its destruction of the professoriate’s autonomy, however, led to the fall of the academic celebrity and the rise of the scholar as a yes-man.

Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History, University of Oxford. His books include:

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity | Paperback | November 2019 | £12.99 | 9781787382244 | 224pp

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