In defence of Radical Inquiry in Comparative Literature, Translation and the Study of Language(s) – 3: In Praise of Ignorance

The following is Lucia Boldrini’s contribution to the LINKS event that took place on 13 June 2022. A description of the occasion can be found here. For the previous post, please scroll down. Further related posts will be published over the next few days.


In Praise of Ignorance (against “excellence”)

In 2011 we held the second LINKS MA conference at UCL, with the title “Comparative Literature: Beyond the Crisis”.

That “Beyond” was a hopeful looking ahead, after the financial crash, the start of austerity by the Tory-LibDem coalition government, and their introduction of the £9,000 university fees. Having been through a year – or three – of crisis at Goldsmiths and seeing redundancies announced in many other universities, the word “Beyond” sounds naïvely premature. Re-reading the thoughts I offered at our roundtable in 2011, I’m struck by how much (too much!) they still apply today. So my contribution is a re-run of those thoughts. I’ll skip several sections, but I decided not to update my notes from 2011; they appear in blue font.

In The University in Ruins, Bill Readings described the history of the modern university as a trajectory from the University of Reason to the University of Culture to the University of Excellence. “Kant”, he writes, “envisioned the University as guided by the concept of reason. Kant’s vision was followed by Humboldt’s idea of culture, and more recently the emphasis has been on the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence”(Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Harvard UP, 1996, p. 54).

In the Kantian University of Reason, the conflict is between tradition and rational inquiry. Philosophy is at its centre because it is the ground for the rational interrogation of the foundations of each discipline.

Humboldt’s University of Culture gives body to this pure Reason by locating it in a historical and ethnic cultural context. Tradition can’t be simply abandoned but must be studied and worked through to be understood, because that is what founds identities; culture, as Readings puts it, names an identity (the knowledge that is the object of study) and a process of development (the process of inquiry that studies and develops it), making the University of Culture the synthesis of research and teaching, the individual and the institution, the process and the product (pp. 63-64). Because language and literature are at the centre of culture, these are also at the centre of university education.

However, it is the latter phase described by Readings that we are now in. The University of Excellence is a bureaucratic model where accountability becomes accounting (think of the credit system, linked to number of hours required to read a certain number of pages; of the effectiveness of courses and their value measured through student evaluation and choices; of quality offices determining curricula; of research becoming “accountable” through regular research assessments for which academics have to produce a certain number of items; and so on). The central figure of the university now is the administrator rather than the professor; the university’s tasks are described in terms of a logic of accountability in which excellence must be pursued, but the concept of excellence is emptied out, it stops meaning anything. (Florian Mussgnug, in the post that will be published shortly in this blog, will talk, instead, of the necessary, productive vulnerability of the thinker.)

This notion of “excellence” is linked to globalization and the weakening of the nation state:

The economics of globalization mean that the University is no longer called upon to train citizen subjects […] The University is thus analogous to a number of other institutions – such as national airline carriers – that face massive reductions in foreseeable funding from increasingly weakened states, which are no longer the privileged site of investment of popular will. (p. 14)

Sadly arresting words, these, in 2022, when Brexit is seen as “the will of the people” that should return power to the state (“taking control of our borders”, repatriating laws) while making the state a global power (“Global Britain”).

In 2011, at this point I turned to some quotes from a letter by the then Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willets and the Business Secretary Vince Cable:

Our universities and colleges are hugely important to this country, and our world class HE system is a great asset. […] We need higher education to flourish, in the interests of economic growth, social mobility and of course because of its inherent worth.

– the last point sounds a bit of an afterthought. Shortly after, they add: 

Less funding will be routed to institutions as grants via the Funding Council. These changes will […] support a more diverse sector, where the choices of informed students provide a constant drive towards high quality teaching and efficient use of resources.

The key point here is the massive change in what and where value resides. If in the “University of Culture” value resided in the idea of learning that supports the nation’s identity and self-understanding, now the value of education means the monetary gain that it can add to the salary of the graduate: to drive up quality, institutions must publish “information about graduate salaries as a matter of urgency.” (There would be much to say, in 2022, on how this has become an ever bigger stick to beat Arts and Humanities with, or on how the interest on student loans is predicted to hit 12% next year.)

Value has become something quantifiable in terms of salary and in terms of hours, of time saved by for example reducing degrees to 2 years instead of 3 (this did not happen, or hasn’t yet, but that was the thinking: as if the knowledge to be transmitted were a finite quantity and not, as Humboldt said, a process, and if you can cram in more hours you save time and therefore money).

After a section that I’ll skip for space, in 2011 I then turned to the value of ignorance as an antidote to “excellence”.

Doesn’t it happen to you that the more you study something, the more you read around something, the more you think about it, the less you feel you know? That may be frustrating, but it is also what keeps us sane even when we think we’re going insane, what keeps us from believing we know it all, that knowledge is finite and can be compressed into fewer hours or years or pages. It pushes us to continue inquiring.

Those of you that know me will know that one of my favourite descriptions of the comparatist is of someone who is ignorant in several subjects. Of course, by being ignorant I do not mean being incompetent, nor do I mean knowing nothing at all. I mean it rather in the sense in which Socrates says in The Republic that all I know is that I know nothing; or in the sense in which Virginia Woolf says, in “On Not Knowing Greek”, that we cannot know the Greeks, what they meant when they used a certain word, or form, because we live in England and where we see luscious green, they see rocks and scorching sun; and we inevitably reconstruct the world of the Greeks according to our imagination of what it must have been, and through our knowledge of Shakespeare and of Jane Austen: we remain ignorant even when we know we are; knowing it is what matters.

But she goes further, and asks an important question: are we not reading into Greek poetry “not what they have but what we lack?”

In comparative literature, working across times, languages, cultures, we multiply our ignorance. And we can use this ignorance, or rather: we can transform into ignorance what we believe we know: look at it harder, as it were, until it stops making the sense we thought it made, until it becomes foreign; until “what we lack” comes to the fore.

Literature is one of the principal ways in which a culture examines itself, its past, all aspects of its identity, including the darkest ones, including the way its identity is formed in the encounter with others. Comparative literature (the study of the linguistic and cultural products of different cultures in relation to one other, including how they relate to ours) is an essential part of this examination. Employing the training of the comparatist to read within a literature or a language is equally valuable: it forces us to acknowledge a difference – call it a foreignness – within our language and literature that we disregard otherwise; to place ourselves in a position of ignorance towards something that we thought we knew and understood and therefore did not think about much: something we didn’t know we lack. It is in this sense, too, that I would like the praise of ignorance to take precedence over the empty notion of “excellence”, which is a practice of ticking the right boxes of what we already know and know how to do, so that we think we don’t really need to learn anything.

I turn from my 2011 notes back to the present: in 2022, we’re in a worse crisis than we were – not just at Goldsmiths but in too many other places; I think for example of University of the Arts which is cutting its languages programme even if it is profitable: somehow those profits are not “scalable” enough. In the humanities and the arts, we always knew that we were going to be hit hard by a notion of monetary value as opposed to the values of education.

But saying this seems to exonerate Goldsmiths’ management from blame, because the crisis appears to be entirely a consequence of government policy. I certainly won’t exonerate the governments that have pushed these policies over the years, and then doubled down with Brexit, and now want to stop more disadvantaged students going to university. But I can’t exonerate my institution’s management who have said things like the following, in the “consultation” document on the redundancies in our department:

… we propose to refocus the department on Creative Writing and on the study of Global Literature. This would support the centring of creativity, diversity and critical thinking in the department’s identity [… as if creativity, diversity and critical thinking hadn’t already been central to everything we do!]

We therefore propose to reduce FTE from areas such as Comparative literature, Translation Studies and Linguistics, whilst preserving the teaching of areas such as creative writing, Black British and Caribbean literature and world literatures, and critical thought.

An astounding lack of logic: reduce comparative literature, translation and the study of language, in order to refocus on the World and the Globe! What an imperialist view of an Anglophone, mono-cultural, homogeneous globe where linguistic and cultural differences are irrelevant and do not need to be paid close attention to – which is what the comparatists, the linguists, the translators do – because we assume that already understand it. We don’t need to look at others and see our lack – we can’t risk it, as discovering our lack would send that model into a crisis, revealing its vacuity.

This is the university of ignorance in a very different sense from the “ignorance” I described in 2011, where the acknowledgement of our not knowing was the prerequisite for the acknowledgment of the contribution that diverse others make to our identity, our wellbeing, and yes, also our economy.

Comparative Literature, Translation and Linguistics are still here at Goldsmiths – indeed this crisis has given us an even stronger sense of purpose – but not all our colleagues’ jobs will be here if the redundancies go ahead, and that’s why we are still fighting them. And this is why I thank all colleagues and students for their amazing support, over the last months, now, and as we look ahead, beyond the crisis, to wrestling the university (not just Goldsmiths but the University as a whole) back, as a place of genuine radical inquiry.

Lucia Boldrini
CCL Director