These brief remarks about the nature of intellectual work and its relationship to civic life were delivered at public discussion of Joe Buttigieg's legacy, held on April 24, 2019 at the University of Notre Dame. The event was titled "Civil Society and the Humanities: A Colloquium in Honor of Professor Joseph A. Buttigieg." I share my memories here in case the commitments of this superb teacher might be usefully remembered now.
What is an intellectual? What does it mean to think? To be a mind, inside a body, in and of, and even for society? And other questions, too: What is a classic? What are the ethics of translation? What is an object of beauty, and how does the aesthetic answer to that question relate to the political one? What would it mean, anyway, for a politics to participate in beauty? Who is Paul Ricouer?
My notes from August 28, 2002 – the first day I set foot inside a graduate classroom—frame these and other questions and open up like the rabbit hole opened up to Alice, in the famous story. On blue lined paper, faded now, after seventeen years in file cabinets shipped around the country, the notes record a first encounter with a world whose contours and logics I could only then guess at, but whose principles Joe helped us all intuit, and then, slowly, to learn.
It was amazing to review those notes in preparation for this day, to look again through the eyes of twenty-six year old me, through that portal, to another domain of being —a domain, in this case, where thought was connected intimately with action, and where that ensemble, thought and action together, named the core responsibility of the intellectual, a vocation at odds with established power, at war with its own romanticization, and driven, always, by principle.
It is hard to overstate the level of naivete that I brought with me into 339 O’Shag for our first meeting of “Introduction to Graduate Studies” that fall. I’d grown up in Fresno, California, a redneck town, and gone to college – admitted by some kind of clerical error, I thought-- at Vassar College. There, newly exposed to real rich people, I studied philosophy and writing and wanted to think hard about the relationship between literary art and ethics. I had completed not a single whisper of research in the discipline of English. So to say I was green when I arrived into Joe’s care is, let’s say, an understatement. For that reason and others, it is hard to measure the effect Joe’s intellectual example and teaching have had on me: they’ve been decisive, for me and for so many others I’ve reconnected with since January.
I will always remember his scowl, while a speaker I had invited lectured on what, in an essay on Gramsci, Joe calls the “tiresome shibboleths” of the liberal-intellectual class —loose ideas about freedom and reason, unmoored from material reality, that were, then as now, alibis for practices of domination.
His example and teaching led to, among other things, my first collaboration with my friend and now-frequent coauthor Tommy Davis, also Joe’s student, who’s here. That was a conference called “Forms of Empire,” which we organized under Joe’s guidance while I was still at Notre Dame, but which happened after I’d transferred away to become a Victorianist. It was early spring 2005, right around this time of year, and we were in the midst of a neoimperial war fought against what was represented as a barbarian, premodern regime, an enemy of universal values. Joe would not hear of it, and I will always remember his scowl, while a speaker I had invited lectured on what, in an essay on Gramsci, Joe calls the “tiresome shibboleths” of the liberal-intellectual class —loose ideas about freedom and reason, unmoored from material reality, that were, then as now, alibis for practices of domination. I recall Joe’s head moving back and forth: a polite but stern signal of nonconsent. Joe’s work as a teacher was to dynamize, historicize, think past such slogans; to be unsatisfied with stand-ins for thought and to reach toward thought itself. The book I’d later write, this one, would use the same title: it is just one of the more visible ways that Joe’s mentorship has shaped my entire scholarly life. [FIGURES 2, 3]
The Introduction to Graduate Studies course is, naturally, common to many graduate programs, but under Joe the genre changed. It was characterized by the wide-ranging, acute intelligence that Joe in reference to Gramsci calls “antidogmatic” thinking: theoretical and practical wrapped into one, without orthodoxy to guide it. We pulled at the most enduring knots of humanistic thought, new to us, old to Joe: how does art relate to social life? Are aesthetic categories timeless, or historically contingent, or somehow both? Is judgment possible? We studied in detail the history of the discipline we were then apprenticed to join – at short and long timescales. We tracked English from its roots in philological method, through the humanistic enterprises of the Enlightenment, with healthy doses of weltlitterateur and Erich Auerbach, to more recent controversies over the canon, the “theory wars,” and the so-called ‘bad writing’ of certain strains of conceptually-ambitious thinking about culture. “Politics,” I read in my own bad handwriting from that first day, “are an added facet of a fully-realized aesthetic text.” A facet, Joe had said: like in a diamond, but also a dimension or space of possibility. It’s these still-bracing questions that surge to mind when I think back on my too-short time as a graduate student of Joe’s, since they continued to shape my academic life from that day forward.
But it was the boring stuff that hit me when I looked back over my notes. Joe presumed no prior knowledge, assumed no class privilege, believed intellectuals could be come, as Gramsci had done, from nothing. What indexes do you use when you do research? How do you take good notes, and organize them? What journals should you read to be a responsible participant in intellectual life? Where is the library, and what, in actual, concrete terms, are you supposed to do in there? Our first text, as you can see from the syllabus I handed out earlier, was The World, The Text, and The Critic, this copy in fact. [FIGURES 4, 5] Said was, as we’ve heard already, Joe’s own teacher and the lessons of this book were also ours.
As you know if you’ve read it, and you should if you haven’t, one recurrent, almost obsessive motif of Said’s text and Joe’s teaching is worldliness, the locatedness of ideas on earth. And one of Joe’s greatest lessons to us, imparted early on, was that, in words of his I now quote for my own students, the life of the mind is lived in the body: all ideas are material, all theory is real, in the sense that it transpires in material forms, in material contexts. Conceptuality is physical, and ideas are lived out, by particular human bodies, in particular physical spaces – spaces that are, as all spaces are, inevitably political. In our seminar this point led to a number of what now seem like obvious insights, like the fact that our own intellectual activity unfolded in material spaces like the University— that complicated engine of conformity and possibility that is itself located in other systems, all the way up to what Joe calls, in an essay, “capitalist states that purport to be democratic.” But Joe’s lesson about the materiality of all ideas led to less obvious conclusions too, like the fact – I still remember it, and say it to my own students now—that you must train your body in the discipline of thought. Reading for long periods. Concentration. Attentiveness. The practice of the body that enables the life of the mind, and the fundamental antagonism, Joe taught us, of this practice with the smooth movement of established power.
The commitment to being uncompromised, uncompromising...to take the part of those who have no part. ...This is the form of a thought waged against barbarism, a life project of the mind and body Joe challenged us all to pursue
To close I’ll just note a phrase that resonated in the seminar room and long after, La Trahison des clercs, the treason of the intellectuals. It is, my notes remind me, the title of the 1927 book by Julian Benda that touched on, among other things, the corruption of the French intellectual class, its descent into nationalism and racist jingoism, a process of abdication that culminated, for Benda, in the betrayal of Alfred Dreyfus in a spasm of anti-Semitic consensus. It became a motif in our discussions of intellectual vocation. “A compromise of intellectual integrity by members of an intelligentsia,” is what the OED gives us for this original sin. The commitment to being uncompromised, uncompromising, even as you labor to rewire from the inside a civil society that demands to be reconstructed: this lingers as I reflect on Joe’s powerful legacy as a mentor and model for what committed reflection must look like today. To serve no master; to indulge no bullshit; to discomfit the comfortable and to take the part of those who have no part. And to do all this without corrupting the sensibility to what my own notes, here, repeatedly call “beauty.” This is the form of a thought waged against barbarism, a life project of the mind and body Joe challenged us all to pursue. The poster and my own book, inscribed to the Buttigieg family with my gratitude, I leave here. But the notebook and the textbook I have to take with me: I’m still using them.
April 24, 2019.
1. Joseph A. Buttigieg, “Gramsci on Civil Society” Boundary 2 22.3 (Fall 1995), 1-32: 4.
2. Buttigieg, “Civil Society,” 9.
3. Buttigieg, “Civil Society,” 3.
4. Julian Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs). (1928) Translated by Richard Aldington. New York: Norton, 1969.
Nathan K. Hensley
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