Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Book Reviews

English Identity, English Intellectuals

A review of Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds

Ashley Rogers Berner

Caricature of George Orwell by Bernd Pohlenz (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Apparently, England doesn’t have any intellectuals—at least according to the two cultural accounts that Stefan Collini surveys (and questions) in Absent Minds. First, he explores the narrative of absence, which, from one angle, applauds the fact that the English, thanks to their good sense and practicality, do not reward those who “merely think.” A variant on this thesis laments the fact that the English, thanks to their stubborn empiricism, do not value and therefore do not produce “true” intellectuals. Second, Collini discusses a narrative of decline: whereas once England made space for intellectuals, now it does not.

These accounts are important signposts towards understanding English national identity, but Collini finds them wanting in historical reality. He points out, for instance, that such events as Harold Laski’s trial in 1946, the BBC’s Third Programme, and Edward Said’s public lectures in 1997 demonstrate that England not only has intellectuals but also pays attention to them. The rise of celebrity culture and the new power of the media cannot contravene this. In the 1920s and 30s, he writes, although new technology expanded the visibility of celebrities,

it did not follow that these developments, and the reshaping of the forms of celebrity that went with them, simply resulted in the withdrawal of intellectuals from some previously unified public sphere. New forms…also represented opportunities to reach new publics, and the mechanisms of celebrity could partly work for intellectuals as well as against them. (481)

The same is true today.

Ultimately, Collini is less concerned with whether the English are, in fact, anti-intellectual than he is with the sway that the narratives of absence and decline have held over English self-identity. Indeed, what is the value of narratives that seem to be so dislocated from reality? Collini considers them part of the polemic of power. At different times, intellectuals could gain credibility by positioning themselves as anti-intellectual or, conversely, as intellectual outsiders. For instance, George Orwell, a proper English intellectual if there ever was one, railed against “the pansy poets” (358), calling Auden “a sort of gutless Kipling” (357); placed quotation marks around “intellectual”; and, in short, “position[ed] him[self ] outside the group to which, by the very fact of his writing, he so clearly belonged” (355). Examples of the other sort include “wellheeled, well-reviewed novelist Virginia Woolf aspiring to found a ‘Society of Outsiders’” and the “Cambridge don and influential critic F. R. Leavis describing himself as an ‘outlaw’” (414).

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