‘For the university, is there hope?’, Professor John Schad asked yesterday in the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts Building. Terry Eagleton, whom he was interviewing there, seemed inclined to answer no, speaking apocalyptically of the ‘effective end of universities as a centre of humane critique’ in our time. So, in Kafkaesque fashion, plenty of hope, but just not for us, in the twenty-first-century academy. But is there not a performative contradiction here? Does not the very fact that Eagleton could make such an announcement, to an enthusiastic audience of 130 (including the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and admirers who had travelled up from as far away as South Wales), at a public interview that celebrated both Lancaster University’s 50th anniversary and Terry’s own extraordinary 50 years in the literary-critical business – does not all this suggest that we might in fact need a slightly more nuanced account of ‘hope in the university’ today?
John Schad’s wide-ranging and beautifully judged interview reminded us of the many ways in which Terry has been not just a brilliant literary critic and theorist, but also an important public intellectual, speaking on behalf of socialism and the oppressed in a variety of tones and registers (including humour, a topic which had some prominence in the interview: ‘I know I’m going to write a book on comedy’). The fact that a revered Marxist public spokesperson is now, since his enforced retirement from Manchester University in 2008, a celebrity intellectual in the neo-liberal university system, complicates matters no end, but does not just cancel out that former role.
Perhaps we need some new sociology of the role of stellar oppositional figures – particularly in retirement, as they now ‘sit loose’ to formal academic requirements – in the marketised university economy, since they are themselves commodities (in terms of institutional visibility and recruitment) and yet eloquent enemies of commodification. To walk that fine line, to sustain critique without just being absorbed and marketised oneself, seems a lot more complex now than it presumably was in the good old days when F.R. Leavis, after retirement from Cambridge in 1962, took up his new post at York three years later. So we look forward to a comparative study of figures like Eagleton, David Harvey and Alain Badiou, as they wrestle with such contradictions and do their best to speak for radical hope still. Moreover, as I reflected during the wine reception in the LICA foyer that followed this splendid Schad-Eagleton interview, we shall all hopefully be assembled here again in ten years time, for Terry’s 60th anniversary as critic, theorist and socialist.