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Response to Review no. 555

I am disappointed that D. L. LeMahieu, whose 1986 study, Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars, is rightly recognized as an important work on its topic, should think it appropriate or rewarding to ‘review’ my Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain in such dismissive terms. Whatever the merits or failings of my book, the topic it addresses is indisputably an important one for anyone interested in twentieth-century British history. Moreover, the book (though Professor LeMahieu nowhere indicates this) partly attempts to bring a comparative perspective to bear on the subject, examining in considerable detail the ways in which the question of intellectuals has been discussed in the United States and France, as well as, more cursorily, elsewhere in Europe. Readers of Reviews in History would surely expect to be given some sense of the book’s various claims and their relation to existing scholarly understanding of these matters, as well, of course, as an indication of the book’s limitations or inadequacies. I am sorry that Professor LeMahieu has chosen instead to present a series of complaints about what he alleges to be the ‘provocative rhetorical style’ of the book and the ‘self-assurance and superiority’ of its author.

In an attempt to move the discussion forward, I shall try to correct the misleading impression of the book given by Professor LeMahieu’s comments. For example, having quoted my observation that ‘the claim about the absence of intellectuals in Britain is a long-standing and widely-held cultural conviction’ which cannot be tracked down to ‘a single locus classicus (p.3)’, Professor Lemahieu treats this as a damaging admission that, ‘It is an opinion that no one opines’. Not only is that not at all what the quoted passage says or implies, but, as Professor LeMahieu cannot help but be aware, the book is full of examples of people holding some version of this opinion. In the course of the book I attempt to show how often they go on to modify the opinion in the direction of there not being ‘real’ intellectuals, or there not being intellectuals like there used to be, and so on, but Professor LeMahieu gives no indication of why this amounts to ‘an opinion that no one opines’ and why he can dismissively conclude ‘Collini slays a phantom dragon’.

Then, having discerned what he calls the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ versions of claims about the ‘absence’ of intellectuals in Britain, he complains that: ‘Even in its weakest form, it turns out, the “absence thesis” does not form “a smooth progression or cumulation” (p. 85)’. Professor LeMahieu quotes my phrase as though it were a damaging concession, and yet isn’t showing that the development of such cultural attitudes is not ‘a smooth progression or cumulation’ precisely what much good history involves? Would there be more virtue in a more simplistic account which eliminated these unevennesses? In a similar tone he says that ‘Collini admits that his method owes “more to literary criticism than to political science or sociology” (p. 8)’, but why should this be represented as an ‘admission’? Surely each of these approaches is legitimate for its own purposes, and I am explicit about the suitability of this approach in a book that concentrates so much on the question of ‘cultural authority’ and hence on the tone and idiom of particular writers.

Other misrepresentations are more straightforwardly culpable. Professor LeMahieu writes: ‘The 1920s and 1930s proved a heyday for public intellectuals, although as Collini remarks casually, “this book deliberately frustrates discussion about the period”(p.86)’. But I make no such remark, casually or otherwise. In the course of outlining the aetiology of claims about the peculiar ‘absence’ of ‘real’ intellectuals in Britain, I say something rather different: ‘The 1930s might be expected to occupy a special place in any account of the question of intellectuals (an expectation which this book deliberatly frustrates)’, and I go on to say why my focus is on other decades, especially the 1950s.

Or again, he slightingly refers to the chapter on Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs by purporting to summarize what I go on to say on the topic, ‘after dispensing with the question of its relevance to a book about British intellectuals’. But not only is a large part of that chapter about the translation, reception, and (in some cases) revealingly interested interpretation of that book in Britain, but it is one of four chapters in a section of the book clearly headed ‘Comparative Perspectives’ which, as I mentioned above, attempts to bring a comparative optic to bear on the question of intellectuals. Part of the book’s explicit argument is that ‘real’ intellectuals are so often assumed to flourish ‘elsewhere’, and so a comparative analysis of these ‘elsewheres’ is clearly germane, and indeed contributes to the book’s case that Britain is not the exception, as has so often been alleged, to some general flourishing of intellectuals in other countries. Benda’s book is obviously fundamental to this analysis quite apart from the intrinsically interesting question of its reception in Britain, so it makes no sense, as well as being untrue, to say that I ‘dispens[e] with the question of its relevance to a book about British intellectuals’.

Or again, Professor LeMahieu complains that ‘the book jumps around in a manner that conventional historians may find disconcerting’. It is not clear who these ‘conventional historians’ may be, and whether Professor LeMahieu is one of them, but is any sophisticated historian really going to be ‘disconcerted’ by a book having a structure that is not simply chronological? The book is clearly divided into five sections, each approaching the topic in a different way. As an example of what is supposed to be so disconcerting, Professor LeMahieu says: ‘Chapter Five discusses the inter-war debate over “Highbrows and Other Aliens”. The discussion of T.S. Eliot is reserved for Chapter Thirteen, 167 pages later’. Indeed it is: Chapter Five is in the section outlining some of the main stages through which the debate about the question of intellectuals went in the course of the twentieth century; Chapter Thirteen is in the section devoted to studies of individuals whose performance in the role is particularly revealing of the tensions involved in what I call ‘the paradoxes of denial’. There are costs to any structure including this one, but I do not believe that any reader is going to be seriously ‘disconcerted’ by this straightforward and transparent arrangement.

Perhaps Professor LeMahieu’s most extraordinary objection comes when he writes, in illustrating his charge that ‘Collini also proves eager to cast stones’: ‘Eschewing sociological analysis himself (pp. 8, 50), he criticizes similar work by the social theorist Edward Shils for lacking statistics, variables, and correlations (p.148)’. Do I? On p. 148, in the course of characterizing Shils’ celebrated 1955 essay on intellectuals in Britain, I note that ‘Shils largely concentrates on two groups, writers and academics, and his more specific observations usually rest on references to named leading figures, almost always literary’. A few sentences further on I then say:

Shils himself was a sociologist; indeed, his role at, first, the LSE and, later, Cambridge was to act as the acceptable face of sociological theory in an academic environment largely sceptical of its claims (especially in the second of these locations). But the manner and tone of his essay bore little resemblance to that usually associated with professionalized social science. There were no statistics, no talk of variables and correlations, no references to recent studies or to the concepts of major sociological theorists.

I am clearly attempting to characterize the nature of the text under discussion and to point out that, although its author was primarily known as a sociologist, indeed as a champion of the cause of sociology, this particular essay does not display those features ‘usually associated with professionalized social science’. Is there not something wilful in trying to make this into evidence of my double standards in ‘criticizing’ a past figure for not emplying methods which I (quite explicitly and wholly legitimately for my purposes) do not use myself?

In the same vein, he writes: ‘Without irony, Collini calls T.S. Eliot “Mr Facing-Both-Ways” (p.304) and accuses a number of thinkers, including George Orwell, of “tendentiousness” (p. 354)’. It is hard to get the accusation altogether clear here. In the course of a long and detailed analysis of Eliot’s positioning of himself in terms of the key concept of ‘cultural authority’, I say: ‘In these terms, Eliot proves, not for the first time, to be Mr Facing-Both-Ways, disposed to assert the claims of “authority” against the ignorant and the emptily opinionated, but at the same time looking for ways to trump the authority of “mere” specialists’. Professor LeMahieu doesn’t indicate that he disputes that analysis, so why the expectation that the quoted phrase should be used with irony? Similarly, after a lengthy analysis of the language used in a passage by Orwell, I observe: ‘This is a fine example of the tendentiousness so often present in Orwell’s celebrated plain speaking’. I cannot see how anyone could dispute the appropriateness of the term as applied to the passage analysed, even if they felt that the ‘so often’ would require even more justification than that provided by the substantial chapter devoted to Orwell on the topic of ‘intellectuals’. So, I can only assume that Professor LeMahieu thinks these descriptions are somehow invalidated by my presumed display of the same characteristics, or at the very least that I should be told that I am in no position to ‘cast stones’. Presumably the ‘irony’ I ought to be employing is self-irony, though LeMahieu doesn’t actually provide examples of my alleged failings in these respects, other than asserting that he finds some of my formulations disputable or unclear.

I began by saying that I was ‘disappointed’ to find Professor LeMahieu attacking my book in such unsympathetic and (I believe the term is justified) misleading terms. Disappointment is indeed my main response, together with some puzzlement over what it is about the book or the topic (or me) that has produced such evident irritation and ungenerous treatment. It is a long book on a very complicated subject, and I would have welcomed criticism from a scholar of Professor LeMahieu’s standing that sought to show where the argument is unsuccessful, or where the interpretation of a period or episode or individual is mistaken, or where my handling of the evidence is unsatisfactory. Instead, he concentrates on what he calls my ‘approach to intellectual history’ and my ‘provocative rhetorical style’ in a manner which does none of these things and which I have to say seems to bear some unexplained animus towards the book. I am very happy to let readers of the book judge for themselves about the justice of Professor LeMahieu’s report. But I hope those who only read this exchange will recognize that his review falls some way short of the admirable ‘Guidelines for Reviewers’ issued by Reviews in History, urging them to ‘summarize the main points of the work under consideration’ and to attend to ‘the work’s role and purpose in a wider context’.