Friday, 18 July 2008
Production lines and freedom
I was lucky in the other papers in my session at the conference. My paper wasn't a very good fit but the two other papers were ones I would have chosen to hear. I managed to go first - I was anxious about the media files but they played perfectly - and then settled down to listen.
The other papers were on class and Marxism - but not class from a Marxist perspective. One looked at the ways in which Marx was read and understood in the 1880s and 1890s - and how Marxist ideas were interpreted and modified in novels and other writings of the time. I didn't take many notes but I hope the speaker will let me see a copy of her paper. I'd like to consider how interpretations of Marx influenced the slightly later writers Robert Tressell and Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.
The other paper took as its starting point the film of Alan Sillitoe's novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The speaker considered the ways in which Sillitoe's young male heroes asserted their freedom through various acts of resistance, as well as considering the way Arthur Seaton, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, remains free in his mind while working on the Raleigh production line. This led into a consideration of the way Jean-Paul Sartre interpreted freedom and the suggestion that Sartre saw workers as full human beings, with freedom to think, act and resist. The paper was further enriched by the way the speaker drew on his own experiences from the freedom of a working-class childhood to his sense of not really belonging when he studied for his first degree.
Quite rightly, the discussion centred around questions of class and I wished I'd done a paper on working-class writing to fit more with the panel's themes. I also wished I'd persisted with reading Sartre's La Nausée (Nausea).
The ideas from those papers haunted me for the rest of the day. At the final panel, a discussion of Shakespeare moved into a more general discussion of Literature, Humanism and universities. I found myself getting annoyed as speakers suggested that academics in literature departments had a particular grasp of ethics because of their subject, and found myself speaking out. I tried to draw the distinction between the responsibility to act ethically, which academics share with all human beings, and the special skill which literature academics have, which is the analysis of literary texts and the construction of arguments. Academics may be ethical but this is part of their responsibility as humans and not related to their skills, qualifications or job.
I found myself talking about Franz Jagerstatter who was executed for refusing to fight for the Third Reich - he was more ethical than any academic I've met but this was because he knew how to act rightly in a crisis. He didn't seek or expect fame and he didn't spend his life reading, analysing and publishing books. I can't remember if I went on to point out that a university's cleaners, porters and cooks may be far more ethical than its academics - I hope I did.
At the reception afterwards I was challenged for some of the comments I had made during the conference, though some people also supported my comments on ethics. A few people were concerned that I didn't reckon the study of English Literature was ethical in itself. Even more were concerned with a quick comment I'd made earlier. When one speaker - an enthusiastic scholar and teacher - suggested that she did her job for love not money, I remarked that I did it in order to be paid. For some reason people find that idea very shocking. Of course I enjoy teaching and reading, thinking and writing. But I'm still an employee. I work for money. I wouldn't do my job if I wasn't paid.
But perhaps I write this blog for love. It costs me nothing except time. And it's free to whoever wants to read it and comment.