I am indebted to Dr Sean Phelan, of Massey University’s Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, who has written a dense 17-page paper in response to an item that appeared in my Curmudgeon column in The Dominion Post three years ago.
I am indebted partly because journalists love to have their work noticed, but more because Phelan’s paper confirms much of what I have been saying and writing about academics for years.
Much of it is utterly impenetrable. If I had set out to write a parody of esoteric academic jargon, I couldn’t have hoped to do a better job than Phelan has obligingly furnished.
Intriguingly, he has anticipated that his work would be turned against him. In a footnote in which Phelan carelessly lapses into plain English, he acknowledges there’s a good chance his article could trigger a comical response if it came to journalistic notice. He adds: “No doubt, extracts could be uprooted to coherently fit with the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ and ‘pointy-head’ stereotypes [of academics].”
Quite so – but it hasn’t deterred him.
Phelan takes as his starting point I column I wrote in March 2006 in which I took a shot at Dr Craig Prichard, another Massey academic. Prichard, a management lecturer, had issued a press statement criticising the sale of Trade Me to Fairfax and arguing that the $700 million proceeds, rather than being transferred to Trade Me founder Sam Morgan and his fellow investors, should have been “creatively distributed” among the site’s “community of users”. All New Zealanders had helped create Trade Me, Prichard asserted, and “new structures” needed to be developed that gave everyone involved a “fair go”.
In my column, headlined An assassin in academia, I wrote that Prichard seemed to think we were all entitled to a share of the profits from the company Sam Morgan worked 18-hour days to get established. I contrasted the entrepreneurial Morgan with Prichard, “safe and smug in his taxpayer-funded academic post, who as far as I can tell hasn’t contributed a damned thing to the country’s wellbeing and, indeed, seems bent on undermining those who do”.
I also wrote that when I googled the previously unheard-of Prichard, I “stumbled into a morass of impenetrable academic mumbo-jumbo liberally sprinkled with reverent references to Michel Foucault – the leftwing French philosopher succinctly described by [my fellow columnist] Bob Brockie recently as a fruit cake – and Karl Marx, whose theories probably killed more people in the 20th century than any other single factor”.
Phelan, who has a PhD in communications from Dublin City University and has been at Massey since 2003, uses these comments as the platform for a prolix exploration of journalistic attitudes toward academia and the tension between theory and practice in the training of journalists – another subject on which I have written, and in which Phelan, as a lecturer who specialises in the news media, has a direct personal interest.
Some clues to his own ideological leanings are evident in Phelan’s online Massey University staff profile, which states: “His research interests are interdisciplinary and he has a particular interest in exploring how post-Marxist discourse theory and the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu can be applied to the study of media and communication. Sean also has an ongoing research interest in examining the relationship between neoliberalism and media practices.”
To be honest I had not previously heard of Pierre Bourdieu, but a googling reveals him to be one of the Usual Suspects: a leftist sociologist and philosopher, heavily influenced by Marx and known for his theories on class structure.
Phelan’s paper is titled Democracy, the Academic Field and the (New Zealand) Journalistic Habitus. It can be accessed here
but be warned: unless you share my perverse enjoyment of academic conceit, you will find it heavy going.
To give you some idea of the paper’s tone, without putting you to the trouble of actually reading it, here are a couple of excerpts:
I want to treat Du Fresne’s column as a platform for a more expansive dialectical analysis that argues it can be read as a ‘fantasmatic’ articulation of an antagonism to academic identities that is a more general attribute of the New Zealand journalistic ‘habitus’. By ‘fantasmatic’, I mean, most simply, a logic of ideological fantasy, which Glynos and Howarth (2007) conceptualize, following Žižek (1989), as the affective force that ‘grips’ a subject’s identification with a particular discourse.
If you’re scratching your head over that word “habitus”, don’t worry; it’s all perfectly simple. Here’s Phelan again:
My understanding of ‘habitus’ follows Bourdieu, who, in Wacquant’s reformulation,
conceptualizes it as a description of how:
Cumulative exposure to certain social conditions instils in individuals an ensemble of durable and transposable dispositions that internalize the necessities of the extant social environment, inscribing inside the organism the patterned inertia and constraints of external reality (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 13)
And in case you still haven’t quite got it, Phelan helpfully explains further:
Although the formal discussion of Bourdieu’s work here is skeletal, it is important to stress that the category of habitus cannot be separated from the other conceptual dimensions of Bourdieu’s work, in particular the category of ‘the field’. If habitus can be described as way of indexing a ‘socialized subjectivity’ or posture (ibid, 126), then field is a heuristic attempt to capture how group subjectivities are dialectally structured by, and simultaneously structuring, what Bourdieu calls a ‘network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions’ (Benson & Neveu, 2005, p. 3).
All quite straightforward, really.
You could choose almost any section of Phelan’s paper at random to demonstrate just how indigestible it is. Here’s another example:
I understand discourse in the sense advanced by Laclau and Mouffe (2001, p. 105), who define it as a ‘structured totality’ that is constituted by the partial fixing of relations between different signifiers. Their account emphasizes the ‘antagonistic’ character of discourse(s) and how those identities that are Othered are central to the articulation of a positively-claimed identity. In other words, the representation of the Other functions, to use Derrida’s paradoxical formulation, as a ‘constitutive outside’ in the construction of one’s own identity (Glynos and Howarth, 2007).
As easy as it is to make fun of this sort of stuff, we should remember that it’s a case of an academic writing for other academics and that it’s not intended to be understood by outsiders. In fact it’s hard to see what function such abstruse analysis serves, other than to gratify and sustain the tight little elite that produces it, and perhaps attract an invitation to deliver a paper to like-minded academics at a taxpayer-funded conference somewhere in the northern hemisphere.
However I resolutely ploughed on and was able, by pouncing on a few renegade plain-English words and decoding the rest, to get a broad sense of what Phelan was getting at.
Phelan thinks that far from there being too much theory in the teaching of journalism, there isn’t nearly enough. What sort of “theory” he envisages can be gauged from telltale phrases such “the deleterious impact of corporate structures on New Zealand journalism” and “the neoliberal corporatisation of the local print media industry”.
His ideas of what constitutes acceptable theory eventually become more explicit. “To clearly distinguish what I understand by theory, this paper sides with people like Prichard, who equate ‘theory’ with reading – or at least distilling – the insights of critically engaged thinkers like Marx, Foucault, Bourdieu, Laclau, Fairclough, etc …” he writes.
He says these "theoretical resources” need to be “rearticulated, in contextually sensitive ways, as part of the formal education of journalists, particularly in universities”. He continues: “I am suggesting that the relationship between academic field and journalistic field imperatives is imbalanced under a hegemonic ‘training’ regime that is structurally precluded from assessing journalistic practices from a theoretically-informed distance.” (Translation: dammit, why can’t I fill students’ heads with the tortuous theories of people like Bourdieu?)
What Phelan is really advocating here is the politicisation of journalism training. More specifically, my guess is that he would like journalism students to be inculcated with the view that the news media is a tool of the ruling class, manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit. He gives a clue to this when he pooh-poohs the conventional view of the media’s role in a democracy. “Mainstream journalistic identification is clearly aligned with a particular conception of democracy that has been hegemonized in capitalist liberal democracies,” he writes. (Translation: the proletariat has been suckered by vile robber press barons.)
Phelan favours university-based journalism teaching over the vocationally oriented courses offered in polytechnic-type institutions, suggesting that an academic approach is the best way to approach what he calls the “problems of New Zealand journalism”. (What problems, exactly? Phelan doesn’t explain, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that New Zealand journalism operates within a capitalist, free-market framework that he finds ideologically obnoxious.)
Unsurprisingly, Phelan emerges as an opponent of the notion of journalistic objectivity and endorses comments made by Auckland University of Technology journalism associate professor Martin Hirst, an avowed socialist who, in the course of an exchange with me last year on this issue, dismissed the idea that journalists can and should strive to be neutral.
Phelan also addresses himself to a column in which my fellow Dom Post contributor Chris Trotter argued that formal journalism training, as opposed to the on-the-job training of the old days, stifles what might be called the gut journalistic instinct. “Students who follow unorthodox ideas and practices get ‘C’s. Rule-followers are rewarded with ‘A’s,” Trotter wrote. In this I believe he was spot on, as he is often is when he gets away from his nostalgic yearning for the heroic working-class struggle. (Remind me to tell you sometime what Wellington Polytechnic journalism tutors thought of the talented Steve Braunias when I taught a feature-writing course there in the early 1980s.)
While acknowledging that Trotter and I are political opposites, Phelan writes: “Both journalists [sic – Trotter is a political commentator, not a journalist] assert an antagonism to the academic field, but in different ways that are structured by two different discourses about what constitutes theory. Du Fresne perceives an academy contaminated by ideology and politics (theory as indulgent philosophizing), while Trotter indicts the University environment for its arid professionalism and depoliticization of journalistic identities (theory as political detachment). Despite these differences, I see this shared antagonism as indicative of a distinct journalistic habitus.” Oh dear, that word again.
As for me, I’m accused of trying to “symbolically annihilate” the perspective of others.
So public debate, when it involves criticism of ideas that Phelan endorses, is “symbolic annihilation”? No, Dr Phelan. It works like this. The media functions as a marketplace of ideas, among many other things. People like Dr Prichard put up ideas and if people like me think they’re stupid, we ping them. If in turn I say something stupid, I expect people to ping me – as they do from time to time. The readers of The Dominion Post, or this blog or whatever forum is involved, assess the competing arguments and make up their own minds.
That’s how a liberal democracy works, and it actually works pretty well. It couldn’t be simpler, really. Trouble is, academics such as Dr Phelan – to say nothing of people like Bourdieu and Foucault – depend for a living on making the world seem infinitely more complex than it really is. That’s part of the mystique that academia has succeeded in wrapping around itself.
As I wrote in a column last year, how the news media works is really not that complicated. Important and interesting things happen in the world. Editors publish or broadcast information about these events because they think their readers/viewers/listeners might want to know about them.
You could argue endlessly about the correctness of some of their decisions, but the process is no mystery. Media studies academics, however, prefer to bury this straightforward, everyday process of news selection under layers of highly imaginative, if ponderous, analysis and heavily politicised interpretation.
They read into the media all manner of coded signals that are visible to no one else, least of all people actually working in the media. And then they invent a whole new language to make it seem even more complex – a language that only they understand.
But back to Phelan. He concludes by laying bare his frustration and resentment. “My view is that New Zealand journalistic education is embedded in a fundamentally conservative network of surface pluralism that is insufficiently questioning, or worse indulging of, the kind of habitus exemplified, in different ways, by Du Fresne and Trotter. I have suggested that the academic field will continue to function as an instrument of the existing hegemonic order, so long as the teaching of journalism continues to be largely divorced from those critical pedagogical resources that can help illuminate some of the censoring and anti-democratic blind spots within the hegemonic journalistic habitus.”
Implicit in this approach, it seems to me, is an assumption that the primary role of the media is to challenge and upset the established order, for which read liberal capitalist democracy. The view expounded in some politicised journalism schools (or madrassas, as a former journalist acquaintance of mine once called them, after the fundamentalist Muslim indoctrination schools) is that journalists should not be mere passive, neutral reporters of events, but activists pursuing an agenda of change.
The question is, should we be bothered by people like Phelan? On the one hand, we can treat his paper as the irrelevant maunderings of a discontented and frustrated academic, likely to carry influence only within a small circle consisting largely of other discontented and frustrated academics. I’m reminded of the lines from Auden’s poem In Memory of W B Yeats:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper …
You could say much the same about many of the turgid texts written – at our expense, I should add – in the universities. They are like the noise of the tree falling in a distant forest that no one can hear.
On the other hand, it’s important that people understand how academia has been infiltrated – a loaded word, I know, but justified in this context – by people who have ideological barrows to push, and who have no qualms about using their sinecured positions in taxpayer-funded institutions to disseminate ideas that most people would find either peculiar or obnoxious, if only they could understand them.
I don’t dispute for a moment that universities have a vital function to fulfil as the “critic and conscience” of society, and I certainly don’t wish to silence people like Dr Phelan. Heck, here I am helping him disseminate his ideas even though I find them distasteful. It just strikes me as odd that the ideological current in our academic institutions flows so overwhelmingly in one direction.
Footnote: Sean Phelan may have a PhD and lecture journalism students, but an old-fashioned chief reporter, or even a half-decent journalism lecturer at one of the polytechnics for which he expresses disdain, would have his guts for garters. He twice misspells the name of one of his fellow academics (David Robie of AUT), wrongly describes National Business Review as a “fortnightly magazine”, incorrectly states that my Curmudgeon column is syndicated to other Fairfax papers including the Nelson Mail, and misleadingly implies that I was editor of The Dominion at the time it merged with The Evening Post. It appears theory takes precedence over practice even to the extent of not bothering too much about getting facts right.
Footnote #2: This response, in contrast to Phelan’s paper, was written at no cost to you, the taxpayer.
Footnote #3: I have sought advice from my solicitors as to whether Phelan’s description of me as an intellectual is defamatory.