Last spring Lucien Goldmann came to Cambridge and gave two lectures. It was an opportunity for many of us to hear a man whose work we had welcomed and respected. And he said that he liked Cambridge: to have trees and fields this near to lecture-rooms. I invited him and he agreed to come back again this year. More particularly we agreed to exchange our current work directly, for we were both aware of the irony that the short physical distance between England and France converts, too often, to a great cultural distance, and especially at the level of detail. And then, in the autumn, he died, at the age of 57. The beginning of a project had to revert to print, as must perhaps always finally happen. But first I want to remember him directly, as an act of respect and as an active acknowledgment of what I believe is now necessary: a bringing together and a discussion of work and ideas occurring in very different traditions but nevertheless sharing many common positions and concerns. My regret, of course, is that he cannot be here to take part in the dialoguefootnote*. For the manner of his lectures in Cambridge was precisely dialogue: in a sense to my
I think many people have now noticed the long-term effects of the specific social situation of British intellectuals: a situation which is changing but with certain continuing effects. In humane studies, at least, and with mixed results, British thinkers and writers are continually pulled back towards ordinary language: not only in certain rhythms and in choices of words, but also in a manner of exposition which can be called unsystematic but which also represents an unusual consciousness of an immediate audience: a sharing and equalstanding community, to which it is equally possible to defer or to reach out. I believe that there are many positive aspects of this habitual manner, but I am just as sure that the negative aspects are serious: a willingness to share, or at least not too explicitly to challenge, the consciousness of the group of which the thinker and writer—his description as intellectual raises the precise point—is willingly or unwillingly but still practically a member. And while this group, for so long, and of course especially in places like Cambridge, was in effect and detail a privileged and at times a ruling class, this pull towards ordinary language was often, is often, a pull towards current consciousness: a framing of ideas within certain polite but definite limits.
It is not at all surprising to me, having observed this process, to see so many students, since the early ’sixties, choosing to go instead to intellectuals of a different kind. In sociology, where we have been very backward—indeed in many respects an undeveloped country—there are, of course, other reasons. But the same thing has happened in literary studies, where for half a century, and in Cambridge more clearly than anywhere, there has been notable and powerful work. A sense of certain absolute restrictions in English thought, restrictions which seemed to link very closely with certain restrictions and deadlocks in the larger society, made the search for alternative traditions, alternative methods, imperative. Of course all the time there was American work: in what appeared the same language but outside this particular English consensus. Theory, or at least system, seemed attractively available. And most American intellectuals, for good or ill, seemed not to have shared this particular integration with a non-intellectual class. Complaints that a man explaining his life’s work, in as precise a way as he could, was not instantly comprehensible, in a clubbable way, to someone who had just happened to drop in from his labour or leisure elsewhere, seemed less often to arise.
And it was then noticeable that in certain kinds of study the alternative manner became attractive and was imitated: at times substantially, in the long reach for theory; at times more superficially, in certain habits of procedural abstraction: the numbered heads and sub-heads of an argument; definitions attaining the sudden extra precision of italics; the highly specialised and internal vocabulary. Everybody except the
But really the situation was more complicated. It needed Chomsky, in his specialist work a very rigorous thinker, to remind us how easily the abstract methods and vocabulary of a particular social science could be used to achieve another kind of consensus, with a fundamentally abstract ruling class and administration. As in one of his examples, the bombing of refugee peasants in Vietnam could be described, in a show of procedure, as accelerated urbanization. Very aware of this danger, which does not have to be called but can be called dehumanising and mystifying, English thinkers could easily, too easily, fall back on their older habits, professing not to understand abstractions like a power structure though they could traditionally understand a microcosm, or not to understand reification though they could understand the objective correlative, or not to know mediation although they knew catharsis. Certain received habits of mind, a very particular and operative selection of traditional and pre-democratic concepts and adjustments, acquired, by what one has to call alchemy, the status of concrete, or of minute particulars. Yet the more clearly one saw this happening, the more clearly one had also to see the genuinely mixed results of a social situation in which intellectuals had little choice but to define themselves as a separate profession: able then to see more clearly into the society which would appoint but not embrace them, acquiring a separate and self-defining language and manner which at least was not limited by the more immediate prejudices and encouragements, but was nevertheless a language and a manner of the monograph and the rostrum: a blackboard numbering, a dictated emphasis, a pedagogic insistence on repeatable definitions: habits which interacted strangely with the genuine rigour of new and bold inquiries and terms.