The (slow) private life of homo academicus

In his Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu is concerned with “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world”. There are presuppositions to enjoying this condition which shape the dispositions of the scholar, necessitating reflexivity for epistemic and ethical reasons if there is to be any hope of transcending the frankly peculiar déformation professionnelle which suffuses the academy. Furthermore, the conditions through which one person come to be ‘freed from the urgencies of the world’ is intrinsically connected to another having those urgencies imposed upon them, as Jana Bacevic reflected on in a recent essay on the necessity of a fridge of one’s own for women who are writers.

I thought back to this when reading Ann Oakley’s recounting of the domestic circumstances of her childhood in Father and Daughter.  From loc 273:

My father couldn’t change a plug or put a nail in the wall. He wouldn’t have known what to do with the blue plaque. He couldn’t drive a car or choose his own socks. His dependence on my mother for these necessities was as much a matter of pride to her as the meticulously managed interior of the house. She couldn’t have achieved this without an array of helpers –not only the men who washed the walls and put the nails in, but a succession of working-class women who came from the cheap terraced streets of Acton in their pink overalls (I only remember the overalls being pink, just as I only remember my father wearing yellow ties the same colour as the front door) to follow her precise instructions about what had to be done on what day in what order. He was always referred to as ‘The Professor’. Shirley or Sharon or whoever it was (they never had surnames like Mr Pearce or Mr Crawford did) had to be especially careful about not disturbing ‘The Professor’ when he was at work in his study.

And again on loc 291:

In the small space next to the confrontation of the cooker and the back door in the Blue Plaque House’s tiny kitchen, my father used to dry the dishes sometimes, and sometimes he would stand at the sink to peel the potatoes, but that was the extent of his contribution to household labour. There were two steps up from the kitchen to the breakfast room, so the person drying the dishes was higher than the person whose hands were in the sink. He was taller than her anyway, but this elevation exaggerated his dominance. He never looked after me, his only child, or took me out or away, on his own. He never wielded a vacuum cleaner or a brush or a duster; I don’t think he even engaged in that most epigenetically masculine of all domestic tasks, emptying the rubbish. He never went out to buy food, not even in a masculine bag-carrying capacity. He never made a bed, rising from his own and returning nightly to its magically straightened embrace. He never washed or ironed his clothes or anybody else’s. She organised his wardrobe, forcing him periodically to attend a bespoke tailor’s in order to commission a new suit or set of shirts: his arms, she said proudly, were too long for the ordinary ready-made kind. Her husband was not a ready-made man. Thus she was able to eject him from the Blue Plaque House every morning, every inch a well-attired Professor.

The world moves around ‘the Professor’ to facilitate his purposive withdrawal from it. He is able to be slow because those around him are fast, structuring their days around his rhythms and routines in order to ensure that mundane domesticity enables him rather than constrains him. My point is not the ‘slow scholarship’ inevitably takes this form. Obviously it does not. But we tend to moralise speeds, seeing acceleration as inherently corrosive and deceleration as inherently worthy. There are many reasons to be sceptical of both assumptions but the gendered realities of actually existing slow scholarship should surely be foremost among them.

It is worth adding that the same dynamic obtains even when ‘the Professor’ is not slow. Even when he acts purposively in the wider world, concerned to manifest the products of his disinterested study in bringing about social change, the temporality of these interventions relies on the support surrounding him. From loc 1251:

The answer, of course, was that our class was based not on property, or on inherited identity, but on the labour of ideas, the politics of mind. Richard and Kay Titmuss collected around themselves a coterie of people who shared their commitment to improving public and personal welfare through the analytic and prescriptive power of thought. They thought about it and talked about it, and the politicians and the social engineers tried to manifest these ideas in action. Actually, he thought and discussed and she served the meals, keeping a little notebook in which she wrote down what was served –‘roast lamb and cherry pavlova’, ‘Greek fish dish and apple pie’ –so the same people wouldn’t eat the same meal twice, which would have been a faux pas of unforgettable proportions.

This lofty distance from practical considerations can operate as a source of meaning, rather than just constraint, within the lives of those picking up after homo academicus. From loc 3628-3646:

Richard Titmuss never wrote about housework, just as he never did any. He played to the old stereotype of the absent-minded professor, whose head is so much in the clouds of abstract thought that he doesn’t notice the odd socks he’s put on, the train that’s going to the wrong place, the leg of a study table smouldering from its proximity to an electric fire. These events and many more were enthusiastically recited by my mother as evidence of my father’s domestic incapacity. It was her way of justifying her own role. Her domestic management was an essential pre-condition of his intellectual prowess: indeed, without her, he would scarcely be alive. The lesson a daughter learns from this is that intellectual and domestic work inhabit completely different spheres. The busy housewife looks after the thoughtful man, and they talk about equality without knowing what they’re talking about. I didn’t read what the thoughtful men who talked in the Blue Plaque House wrote then, but, when I did, I was floored by the conundrum that they, too, seemed to assume the Alienation and freedom line –women’s labour ties them to a natural world of love and care, whereas men exist in an historically contingent material place which is also the domain of public policy. 

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