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Thoughts as missiles

In the TLS, Stefan Collini conducts a magisterial demolition of the UK government’s chuckleheaded new university research-assessment criterion of “impact”: ((Previously discussed here.))

The OED definition of “impact” points to the central problem: “The act of impinging; the striking of one body against another; collision”. In the proposed exercise, what is being sought is evidence that one body (universities) is striking against another body (not-universities, here referred to as “society”). Nothing more than that: a mechanistic model. But the real ways in which good scholarship may affect the thinking and feeling and therefore the lives of a wide range of people, including other scholars (who are, after all, also citizens, consumers, readers . . . ), is much subtler, more long-term, and more indirect than the clacking of one billiard ball against another.

I am bound to approve of this paragraph’s method in particular, but the whole thing is excellent.

  1. 1  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 24, 2009, 3:42 pm 

    Indeed, Steven. Here’s a question that’s baffled me for some time. Why is Collini not a more well known figure? Pisspoor “intellectuals” dominate the the stage, with the awful Melvyn Bragg, Martin Amis, Bryan Appleyard, Clive James the most prominent – all of whom have nothing interesting to say. Yet, outside academia, Collini is barely known.

    Really, how many so-called “public intellectuals” are as interesting as Collini? Perhaps Collini is a serious man and can’t be doing with the egoism and performing seal acts to make a name for himself as a “public intellectual”.

  2. 2  Steven  November 24, 2009, 4:02 pm 


    I don’t like to see Melv lumped in with that other lot, though.

  3. 3  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 24, 2009, 5:24 pm 

    Bragg irritates the bejesus out of me. I’ve never quite gotten over a ludicrous episode of the South Bank Show, in which Bragg was discussing a Pilgrim’s Progress with Philip Pullman. A few minutes in and we find out that Bragg’s never even bothered to read the bloody book! Or splendidly on “In Our Time” Bragg interrupting and giving the low down on Wittgenstein to Ray Monk or arguing over the nature of spacetime with Roger Penrose.

    Personally I’d like to see Collini (or someone like Lisa Jardine) be given the “In Our Time” gig. Someone like Collini would be excellent. And there would be no faux intellectualism based on crib reading by researchers.

    I could go on, but I don’t think I should. I hope over time you’ll leave the dark side, Steven.

    Actually, if you don’t mind me asking you and your readers, who do you believe are the most overrated “intellectuals” in public life?

  4. 4  Steven  November 24, 2009, 5:35 pm 

    I could be wrong but I don’t think Melv makes many public declamations of opinion on topical subjects, so in that sense he’s not really one of those annoying public intellectuals at all? He might occasionally nod on In Our Time, as would any mortal, but that doesn’t stop it being, heroically, one of the two or three least stupid mass-cultural products of contemporary Britain.

    I don’t know whether Collini would be as good in what is obviously a fantastically difficult job. (I must pass over your other suggestion in horrified silence.) But anyway, Melv invented the gig, for which he deserves credit also.

    Your final question is an entertaining one, and I look forward to seeing whom other readers nominate!

  5. 5  sw  November 25, 2009, 1:16 am 

    Zizek, of course, is the most overrated intellectual in public life, and it’s well-deserved, too!

  6. 6  Steven  November 25, 2009, 1:40 pm 


  7. 7  John Fallhammer  November 25, 2009, 4:06 pm 

    Bragg interrupting and giving the low down on Wittgenstein to Ray Monk

    I don’t remember the incident, but could he not have been trying to do a bit of gap-filling for the benefit of the listeners?

    He does sometimes overstep his bounds, but I decided he was a good sort when he reduced Howard Jacobson to spluttering indignation with his list of the most influential books in history. That was nice.

  8. 8  sw  November 25, 2009, 4:43 pm 

    I really like Zizek. And I think he is the most overrated public intellectual. He’s the type of person I wish I had discovered somewhere, but he’s everywhere. Does that make sense?

  9. 9  Steven  November 25, 2009, 4:46 pm 

    Who is overrating him, exactly? You? Adam Kirsch?

  10. 10  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 25, 2009, 4:55 pm 

    I watched Zizek on HardTalk (or Straight Talk or Straight HardTalk or Hard Straight Talk) or whatever the hell it’s called last night. He was awful. Perhaps television is not his medium. He made some very good points, but in general he did not come over well at all.

    But surely the most overrated “intellectual” in Britian today has to be Roger Scruton? I don’t think Oliver Kamm qualifies, despite all his intellectual pretensions.

    Steven, as you are almost certainly aware there is a wonderful French film called “Le diner de cons”. I propose a game called “Le Unspeak Diner De Cons”. Now I’ve proposed it I’m not at all sure if Scruton would be my choice. There are just so many others. Oh Buridan’s ass!

  11. 11  Steven  November 25, 2009, 5:14 pm 

    Scruton is enormously less stupid than most of his kneejerk detractors.

    Re Zizek on HardBalls, I think expecting a philosopher to be good on TV is rather like expecting Ant and Dec to do a good job of hosting In Our Time (although I would listen to that!).

  12. 12  dsquared  November 25, 2009, 7:26 pm 

    Zizek’s overrated, but he’s worth it

  13. 13  dsquared  November 25, 2009, 7:31 pm 

    To answer the question, I must say that whatever their relative intelligence, Scruton’s kneejerk detractors have got it more or less right – presumably their lack of intellectual pretension led them into a wholly natural, time-honoured and British distaste for right-wing ballbags in the pocket of the tobacco industry. But Scruton cannot be the most overrated intellectual in Britain and nor can anyone else while Philip Blond draws breath.

    Stephen Bayley is pretty insufferable too.

  14. 14  Steven  November 25, 2009, 9:34 pm 

    Perhaps I am biased in my estimation of Scruton by having read numerous of his books.

    I had never heard of Philip Blond. I read the first sentence of his latest “report” —

    It is hard to underestimate the challenge faced by our public services.

    — and gladly read no further?

  15. 15  sw  November 25, 2009, 10:46 pm 

    Thank you, dsquared @12.

  16. 16  dsquared  November 26, 2009, 11:20 am 

    Perhaps I am biased in my estimation of Scruton by having read numerous of his books.

    I think you probably are – we’re talking about Roger Scruton the chat-show comedy foxhunter and homophobe here, not the philosopher of the same name (surely it’s intrinsic to the concept of a “public intellectual” that they’re to be judged by their contribution to the popular or semi-popular media rather than their academic work – one might compare a case in which we were talking about Gordon Ramsay’s output as a TV chef, in which case I’d recuse myself as probably biased from having eaten at his restaurants).

  17. 17  Steven  November 26, 2009, 11:53 am 

    surely it’s intrinsic to the concept of a “public intellectual” that they’re to be judged by their contribution to the popular or semi-popular media rather than their academic work

    That is a good point! (But then who shall ’scape whipping?)

    And no sooner do you mention Philip Blond than he pops up on Today

  18. 18  dsquared  November 26, 2009, 3:54 pm 

    But then who shall ’scape whipping

    Paul Krugman and few others. On that metric, Lord Bragg comes out really rather well, I note.

  19. 19  engels  November 26, 2009, 4:40 pm 

    But is it not the case that Zizek’s very over-ratedness… oh, never mind.

    I don’t think Zizek can be over-rated on balance because for every bleary-eyed Zizek true believer you come across there are at least half a dozen people who think that he is evil incarnate.

  20. 20  Steven  November 26, 2009, 5:37 pm 


  21. 21  engels  November 27, 2009, 9:12 pm 

    Well, I just watched Zizek on Big Hard Straight Talk (thanks to Tawfiq’s unrecommendation) and it was indeed pretty dire. I’m not sure I’d blame Zizek though. And I must say it wasn’t quite as bad as the episode with Alain Badiou.

  22. 22  democracy_grenade  November 27, 2009, 9:20 pm 

    No, no, no, the show’s title is The Unbearable Lightness of Steven Sackur.

    I meant to mention the Badiou episode when this topic first came up. I do kind of think that AB deserves props for not lamping Sackur in his smug, agonised face. But some marks do need to be subtracted for the fact that nothing of note was said by either party at any point.

    That said, I’m not as familiar with Badiou’s work as I am with that of Zizek, so maybe the issue wasn’t purely one of text->tele transfer and linguistic struggle…

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