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Academia and Intellectual Soulcraft: A Conversation with Cornel West

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King’s Review recently had the pleasure of talking with Cornel West during his stay last week at King’s College, Cambridge. Cornel was here to participate in a number of public conversations organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). We asked him about the role of academia and the responsibility of intellectuals in the public sphere, particularly their relation to recent political movements such as Occupy, and pressing social and political problems such as climate change, poverty, and financial crises. We publish below the text of our conversation.

Elizabeth Dzeng: What do you think academic and public intellectuals can do to engage more actively in issues of wider social importance that they feel a commitment to? In your career you’ve experienced tensions with some of the institutions that you’ve associated with and what they wanted you to do versus what you thought was best for engaging with the public. How specifically can academics become more “public,” despite systemic pressures to do otherwise?

Cornel West: Well, first we have to define what we mean by the “public intellectual,” because I don’t really use that term too often. I tend to use “democratic intellectual,” or even the intellectual as part of the prophetic tradition. Because you could take someone like Samuel Huntington or Henry Kissinger – they would certainly be public intellectuals. Do they tell the truth at the level that I would like? No. Are they too tied to the powers that be? Yes. Are they too friendly to the establishmentarian views and the reigning paradigms of the status quo? I think they are. So they’re public intellectuals in that sense; they’re democratic intellectuals. But they’re not as prophetic or progressive as I would like.

We have to understand the variety of public intellectuals, as well as the variety of publics. Because there’s a public that’s tied to the establishment, and there are publics tied to poor people’s movements, workers’ movements, women’s movements and so forth. The academy has its own kind of public. It’s very unique. It’s a hybrid, because on the one hand there’s the professional managerial space of the capitalist society that’s involved in elite formation. On the other hand, academia is tied to some very precious liberal ideals in which you allow for robust conversation and uninhibited inquiry. Those are very precious. Now, those liberal ideals are coming under increasing pressure from the rule of big money, so that even robust conversation and inquiry is still more and more being reduced to questions of what kind of utilitarian value it serves or doesn’t serve. What kind of profits does it generate? What kind of possibility does it have for people moving into the labor force so that they’re usable, and so that they become citizens who contribute to the economic X, Y or Z of our society?

I’m in deep solidarity with my liberal comrades in terms of defending the relative autonomy of the universities and robust uninhibited conversation, because it’s very tough to preserve over time, very difficult. It’s like Oxbridge, hundreds of years ago, tied to the church so that John Stuart Mill couldn’t gain a foot here. Because it was just too parochial, too provincial, so you’ve got a lot of your creative talents going somewhere else. And you’ve got to be able to open it up. Same with patriarchal constraints, and so on. For me, the democratic intellectual trying to be prophetic has to try to tell the truth and allow suffering to speak, beginning with the fatherless, motherless, the poor, prisoners, working people, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, and people of color.

But you can’t succumb to the pathology of self-righteousness because all of us could be wrong. You have to be self-critical. You’ve got to be Socratic, shot through. So you try to bring together intellectuals and hermeneutical humility, because we’re basically involved in interpretations of things, and we need a moral courage and spiritual fortitude. You have to be one who takes the stand, even if it might be wrong. I was just telling you about Brother Julian Assange; he’s so much on my mind now from that dialogue we had with him yesterday. At the Ecuadorian embassy in London we talked about the role of humility in such a situation. He finds himself becoming more and more humble. That’s good for all of us, because we all have deep gangster proclivities, all of us. I mean as a Christian, I really believe that. Greed, envy, and resentment spoil the soul. So this is part and parcel of what it means to be a democratic intellectual. That’s why I appreciate a variety of intellectuals and academics.

Ryan Rafaty: Your emphasis on critical, open inquiry tied to intellectual humility relates to the next question that I’d like to raise. If you look at the Occupy movement, it prided itself on the fact that it was a primarily leaderless movement.

Cornel: Right, right.

Ryan: But that’s very different from many academic and press institutions, where certain policy-guiding elites are given platforms of authority with very little accountability after they’ve climbed the ladder. New York Times columnists like Tom Friedman, Harvard academics like Niall Ferguson and Alan Dershowitz, and other writers with privileged platforms don’t have their intellectual credit rating downgraded after they’ve been wrong time after time – in fact, past mistakes are forgotten and left uncorrected as soon as new items hit the news cycle. A responsive institution should rectify that problem, and so I’m wondering how might we deal with charismatic authorities and the cult of personality problem in such a way that doesn’t reward failure?

Cornel: I think that we have to be very, very intent about the forms of mendacity, hypocrisy, and the lack of accountability. Then again, it relates to us, but it also relates to elites. If you think about it, most of the economists in the spotlight the past six or seven years – not one has, for the most part, come out and said, “I was wrong.” Paul Krugman writes about that. Not one. It’s this sense that somehow they can get by, can have a pass because they have a certain kind of status that allows them to transcend mechanisms of accountability.

And we’re not asking them to stop loving their mamas. We’re not asking them to engage in extravagant acts. Just to acknowledge the degree to which they have been complicit with various forms of misleading people, or even intentionally trying to say the right thing and getting it wrong. That’s all. But I think the best way to do that is by your own example. A child can get something wrong. Noam [Chomsky], say it: You’re wrong brother. “Yeah, ok Brother West.” Put it in print! “Brother West, I want to mention that I’m wrong.” Just by example. Do it. They need to become better. Then you’re becoming a very benchmark for pointing out their mendacity and hypocrisy. That you are. You are so very right.

You see what happens with the rule of big money – there’s a certain soulcraft that goes with that. It puts arrogance at the center of what it is to be in that space, and you really begin to think you can get away with that. Wall Street criminality is probably the best place to start, where they can just do anything. Market manipulation, insider trading, fraudulent practices, predatory lending across the board. They have no accountability, and people see it over and over and over again. The younger people go in knowing that it’s wrong. But they get morally constipated and say: “I know it wasn’t right but everybody else is doing it so let me just go on.” And it becomes part of a whole way of life: a subculture of mendacity.

That’s different than just our individual gangster proclivities. When we’re all held accountable over and over again, usually we have to pull back. But if we can get away with it and then still be celebrated, still be cherished and embraced by the powers that be? David Bowie will tell you. Listen to his 1975 song “Fame.” Listen to all the words closely. He’s a Socratic brother from Bromley. David Bowie: tell us about the hollowness of fame. Everybody is embracing it. You can’t do anything wrong. Everybody wants a piece of you. You’re a celebrity; you’re almost worshipped. It’s not eloquent.

One of the roles of a place like Cambridge is that we know we produced elites like that in the past and present, but you know what? We’ve got a Socratic twist that pulls the rug from under. Not because we’re vicious but because we believe in the quest for truth, small ‘t,’ quest for knowledge, small ‘k.’ And it’s not additive, it ought to be integral to elite formation.

Nicholas Mulder: There are dilemmas faced by academics who try to balance their intellectual obligations with their social sensibilities. It seems that many academics are rightly sympathetic to the plight of developing countries and the reduction of global inequalities. But, to take an example, one issue that looms within the intellectual community is climate change, something we’re getting to know more and more about. To some extent, mitigating climate change will involve imposing constraints on industrialisation and energy production vital for developing countries. So one can find oneself committed to advocating what are two very different kinds of truths – economic development rights and environmental protection – that cannot always be aligned on a single course of action. What’s the way out of this conundrum for the progressive academic and how should it be handled?

Cornel: I think it has something to do with what Brother Paul Gilroy was talking about. That we from the richer countries have to talk seriously about trying to live with less. Beginning with the well-to-do. We’re not talking about taking their property or their money, but we’re talking about acknowledging the degree to which we’re trying to generate new paradigms in which we can sustain life on the planet. That cannot be predicated by endless growth. So that we’re able to provide for basic needs – food, shelter, medical care and so forth – to people all around the world, while recognising that we cannot just pursue this growth model. And it’s a growth model that is often tied to the neoliberal agenda and the agendas of big banks and corporations. Now, what form that takes – what kind of raising of consciousness, what kind of sacrifice, cut-backs, curtailments – that’s an open question.

In the United States Bill McKibben’s work and his movement is very important; they’ve zeroed in on the Keystone pipeline. His voice is one of the most important. Now we’ve just been talking about leaders, celebrities and so forth and he’s one of the most visible around. But I think he, like myself, recognises that when you’re leaderful and leaderless, your voice can surface but when your voice surfaces it can’t be in a messianic mode. It has to always acknowledge it’s one voice among others.

It’s like a jazz quartet. So there might be the Duke Ellington Orchestra but you’re not going there just to hear Duke play. You’re going to hear Johnny Hodges and the others because they’re all together. In part that’s what I think Occupy wanted, that kind of jazz-like lifting up of all voices: anarchist, councilist, liberal, progressive. Maybe, you know, post-cocaine movement, because they had a lot of smoking sometimes at certain places. But all of those voices together, rather than just one messianic model with the celebrity running things the way that Saint Martin King surfaced in the ’60s. That was the last thing we wanted in the Occupy movement, because it’s not democratic at all; you can cut off the air so quickly. But this issue of impending ecological catastrophe does force us to raise all those kinds of questions.

[Crisps and water break to discuss existential discontent at the lack of moral consistency]

Cornel: We’ve been talking about this earlier in terms of the war crimes, not just of the American empire. You see Britain’s got, what, 500 drones and now bragging about it: “It’s a part of our killing machine now too because the United States has got a big killing machine. We’ve got a little one, so that makes us feel good about ourselves.” There’s something spiritually empty about that. But war crimes are across the border; we cannot normalise criminality. You see, we just get used to it. The same way people get used to the greed, we just get used to 219 children dead.

There’s hypocrisy among so many so-called liberal progressive intellectuals, because when George Bush does it, it’s a crime against humanity. But see, when Obama does it: “Oh that’s very unfortunate but we wanna… We don’t wanna highlight that too much, no, uh-uh”. Cameron does it. Cameron, Obama, Bush, African leader, you know, Assad and so forth and so on. You see these are crimes against humanity; they’ve been killing innocent folk whatever form it takes. We have to have that kind of moral consistency or else we lose whatever moral authority we had in our critiques.

And this is part of the problem right now in the US when it comes to, you know, the Middle East and Africa and so on. It’s not just Obama, it’s so-called liberals that can somehow get a free pass; or, not a free pass, but that they just don’t want to talk about it too much. And we need to have the exact same moral outrage holding anger and righteous indignation when a black president does it, a liberal does it, a woman under Thatcher, whoever it is. And it sounds simple or simplistic but it’s so crucial; otherwise, the grounds upon which we speak on any issue nobody takes seriously. But you get in lot of trouble. Oh, you get in a whole lot of trouble. No doubt about that.

Parker Ramsay: You’ve done a lot with music while working in academia. Has academia failed to lend weight behind artistic and musical expression in politics? What should the role of academia be in political music and music that mobilises?

Cornel: That’s a beautiful question because I think that, when you look at the history of the academy, at its best it’s been tied to highbrow humanistic education. When you look at the paideia of the Greeks the Bildung of the Germans, music has never really been made as integral as it should be. And we know in the everyday life of the vast majority, to most if not all human beings, music is fundamental – fundamental. So we’ve had to get it on our own. To cultivate critical appreciation of different kinds of music, we must understand that music requires the same attention, rigor, and wrestling that literary texts do – that what goes on in a lab does.

We’ve missed that boat, we’ve really missed that boat. And so in that sense when I talk about robust conversation and uninhibited inquiry, it’s got to embrace the arts – and this is also true for painting. But it’s got to embrace music and musicians as well, and we’ve got a long way to go in that regard.

Josh Booth: You talked about the Socratic training that we have in places like Cambridge, but arguably we don’t see that manifested in some of the decisions that led, for instance, to the financial crisis. So what’s missing? Is it the creativity and self-reflexivity that one gets from improvising, from playing music? How should academia prepare individuals so that they go away and retain these skills? Or is that too ambitious? In which case, do those working within universities need to maintain stronger links with people in their workplaces? It’s all very well talking about connections with unions for instance – a traditional leftist preoccupation. But when these people aren’t unionized and are driven apart by bonus culture, how can we stimulate that collective, improvisatory impulse which allows people to come together to critique and change dysfunctional institutions?

Cornel: Absolutely. I think that in addition to the kind of intense self-criticism and self-interrogation that goes with the Socratic personality, you’ve got to follow through on the negro national anthem, which is “lift every voice.” And listen to every voice.

In some ways it goes back to the polyphonic qualities in certain kinds of music. You’re not going to be able to actually perform if you have not cultivated the faculty of receptivity and learning how to listen. Part of the problem of the elites on Wall Street is that they’re tied to the economists they hire to rationalise their activity. They don’t want to listen to other voices. In the first place they don’t want to listen to certain liberal progressive economists like Paul Krugman and others.

Part of the legacy of John Maynard Keynes here, regardless of what Brother Niall Ferguson has to say about the future, is that Keynes was deeply concerned about the future – read his essay on grandchildren. Learning how to listen means that you can’t just hang around people who think like you and look like you, and then think your Socratic personality is gonna flower and flourish. So you listen to the people coming out of the trade union movement. You listen to somebody who’s prophetic, Rowan Williams – he’s here at Cambridge now. He’s a very powerful voice on a number of different fronts. And he’s got a love for the Russians in the same way that I do. He understands Dostoyevsky and has written a magnificent book on it. Man, Rowan’s something else. It’s not the kind of thing you expect! Jesus Christ!

It’s like my old dear Brother Bernard Williams who was my teacher at Harvard. Well, you see, the thing about Bernard Williams was that he studied classics, wrote essays on integrity, critiques of utilitarianism, books on Descartes, you name it. He was one well-rounded brother. He was a King’s College man to the core. I was so blessed to see his bust there in the lounge. He had that kind of openness and he listened; he was a jazz man in that way. He learned how to listen, even though he had a lot to say. And he may come at you now. He didn’t suffer fools easily at all, but he learned how to listen.

Well you see, we need more economists like that. Keynes actually knew that Marx had a point. Unemployment and inequality are the Achilles’ heels of capitalism. Keynes said that himself: the Marxists have a point. He believed their economic analysis was gobbledygoop [sic.]. But he knew he had to listen to their general points, you see. And there’s fewer and fewer academics at the top in their bubbles who really think they have to listen. They just dismiss it all. But then when the house comes tumbling down, they’re living in a world of make-believe, a house of cards, then they get frantic, they get hysterical, you see: “Oh, what we gonna do about…What we gonna do.” Well, you know, there’s some people that have been thinking about these things for a long time.

And then here comes Greenspan: “Well, you know, I think I may have made an error here or there…”. Come on, Alan! Please! You’ve been off track for 45 years. You and Ayn Rand, you know what I mean? Come on Alan. But he still gets invited to all of the parties, he dines at the White House, he gets his honorary degrees and so on and so forth. And I’m not jealous of that, cause you know, a brother gets what he wants, and he’s only got one life like the rest of them. But he has to be called out when he plays that kind of very negative role in terms of damaging peoples’ lives based on these paradigms that don’t listen to the voices of others, especially to the voices of the suffering. I don’t think the voices of the suffering have a monopoly on truth, but they deserve to be listened to. Absolutely.

Josh: As educators in universities how can we impart that ability to listen? Does it involve a reorganisation of curriculum? Must it involve some kind of change in teaching style? Or should everyone just play jazz? Maybe that’s the easiest way.

Cornel: Well by playing jazz it means you already have been shaped in such a way that you listen. You see what I mean? You join Miles Davis’ quintet and say you haven’t listened to Stravinsky, he’d say: “Where have you been all your life?” “Oh, but I’m a jazz man!” “And you don’t think Stravinsky has something to do with Jazz?” “Well, I hadn’t thought about that.” You’ve got some work to do. “Tell him, John! Oh coach, here it is, right here, I got Firebird right here.”

But what that means, though, is that in a place like Cambridge, W.E.B. Du Bois ought to be integral to the curriculum. It ought to be impossible to graduate from Cambridge University without reading Du Bois. On your own or assigned. These voices ought to be integral – the Toni Morrisons, James Baldwins, Gwendolyn Brooks, C.L.R. Jameses, Stuart Halls, and we could go on and on. And it’s not a matter of just being inclusive and sensitive to black people. It’s that these voices are playing a fundamental role in wrestling with what it means to be human, like everybody else.

You’re planting seeds. Most of pedagogy is like the parable of the sower: you know you plant the seeds but you don’t get to see them sprout. Somewhere down the line, you have a crisis at 35, mid-life crisis at 50, then you start crawling back to all those humanistic texts that were speaking to the soul. “Now that I’ve made all this money I need to go back to those things…”