An Interview with John Higgins

19 SEPTEMBER 2014

ROURKE: I find Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities (2013) very exciting, a real page-turner as it were. The style is highly accessible with just the right amount of intellectual spice—perhaps medium spice—and I think it has immense value as a critical document both locally and internationally. It belongs, I would happily argue, on any serious academic or intellectual’s shelf, next to say Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which you mention while speaking of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” concept. In order to begin to situate the book for our readers, would you like to start by talking a little bit about Snow, whose phrase “the two cultures” seems to echo through the book as a whole?

HIGGINS: I think you overestimate the likely impact, but that is very flattering. Thank you! What interested me to begin with, I think, was that the phrase has a currency that goes beyond—way beyond—its original use. It’s still a phrase that you often hear in everyday discussions where the “two cultures” are understood as referring to science and the humanities. As a student of Raymond Williams (quite literally, for as well as working on Williams, I worked with Raymond a little in my Cambridge days, and he was to have been my doctoral supervisor at one point, something we might come back to) I was particularly interested in his idea of “keywords”. It is always of interest when particular phrases from the past come back into play. One of the simplest things that, I think, critical reflection can engage with, is to seek to look at the original use of those terms and then to consider whether and how their current deployment shifts (or not) from that. You can learn quite a lot from that: just think of the originally rather neutral sense of the entrepreneur as someone who sets up a business, or arranges a musical or theatrical show, compared with the extremely positive charge it is given now, where it almost replaces or stands in for the positive idea of the citizen…So because of the contemporary tensions, as it were, between science and the humanities in higher-education funding and policy, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the late fifties and early sixties when C. P. Snow first coined the phrase…What you then find is that there are some similarities and some differences, but what is particularly striking is just how abusive Snow is about humanists (despite, or perhaps because of, his own work as a novelist—popular, but despised for the shallowness of his art by a critic like Leavis, and the two of them had a notorious fight over Snow’s book), so that in the opposition between science and humanities, science always comes out best. It’s then striking that when you see the phrase used now, it still often contains with it this kind of in-built bias, though it’s used as if it were a purely neutral and objective idea of the two fields and their differences. This is not, of course, to say that there are not significant differences between them in terms of objects and methods of study, but to try and get through to the fact that in substantial ways there are also common grounds between the “two cultures”: the hard labour of working through and challenging received ideas or established states of knowledge to get to new insights, theories, “innovations” and discoveries; following the demanding protocols of scholarly knowledge and statement.

ROURKE: So there is a kind of invisible but fundamental antagonism at work, embodied in the writing and arguments of Snow himself. Do you think this antagonism can be overcome? Is that what you are trying to do in your arguments regarding the importance of critical literacy for citizenship, and for agency in the social and educational totality? What is the politics of that kind of position?

HIGGINS: One of the interesting things in the immediate reception of the book was the difficulty people had in decoding or assessing its politics. For some, the criticism of government policy on the humanities could only mean the book belongs to what Minister Blade Nzimande calls the “liberal backlash”. For others, its engagement with and criticism of neo-liberal higher education policy across the world suggested rather a critical leftist position. In a complicated country like South Africa, there is often a tendency in politics to assert pure identities or affiliations of one kind or another, and to ignore the messy reality of real complexity and contradiction. It’s probably more interesting to read through the book—as any other book, really—for its complexities rather than reductive simplicities that immediately give you something to say, rather than to deepen your engagement in reading so that you don’t just find what you presupposed in the first place… That’s scanning a text to confirm your presuppositions—always a popular option!—and not reading in depth, to actually understand a piece of writing.

ROURKE: But would I be right in saying that the book argues that there is a kind of pincer movement in the attack on the humanities in South Africa…a nationalist as well as a neo-liberal assault?

HIGGINS: Yes. Indeed, that is my view. On the one hand what we have in South Africa is the simple application of the kind of global template for higher education associated with the World Bank and the OECD, the organs of neo-liberal reform. This template prioritises science and technology over all other forms of education, and, in particular, cannot really conceive of any place for humanist scholarship and training. Of course, there is a tired kind of lip service to the values of culture—often epitomised by opera, and there’s undoubtedly a useful study of that to be done in the South African context—but these are very much regarded as luxury commodities, rather than as forms of human expressiveness and interaction that are a part of the functioning of any real society. But of course, even if you try and simply take over or assume such a global template in a country as agitated and complex as South Africa, you soon find that it can’t quite fit: the local seeps out of it, but also insists on some recognition. So that in a sense, there’s more space here for the humanities than in many other countries, particularly as we have been active in seeking to insist on that space. You soon see that the actual problems of social life (and the templates tend to address only economic life) are so striking and inescapable that you can’t really ignore them, try as you will. The sheer weight and historical density of problems of language, literacy, schooling, race, gender oppression, class warfare are inescapable, and culture is the way we live through and experience these things in ways that cannot be entirely taken out of or removed from even the prevalent fantasies in circulation around the figure of the entrepreneur and the focus on an economy separated from the society with which it is inextricably intertwined. To be brief: this is all why there is a commitment, in higher-education policy, to what it calls “critical citizenship” as well as to the instrumental forms of “human-capital development”. So that’s one way in which the specificity and the deeply fragmented nature of “post-apartheid” society can make the invisibling of the humanities that current global policy aims for much more difficult. That’s on the positive side. But I think there is a negative side to this as well, and that is the danger of the re-instrumentalisation of the humanities in the name of a patriotic project of the kind President Zuma recently referred to as the central goal of higher education: to produce “patriotic citizens”. Once you say that, you are on a slippery slope, and one thing the book seeks to do in a very small way, in its concerns with academic freedom, is to try and encourage some awareness of the dangers in the obvious appeal of a humanities recast as a form of what I call “applied nationalism”, a patriotic, intensely narcissistic and inward-looking regime of study, centred on the supreme importance of the formation of a national canon, with all the obvious themes as the sole frameworks for reading and interpretation. Of course, this can be very seductive and very difficult to resist (particularly when substantial funding comes with buying into it); but I do think there needs to be certain levels of resistance, or perhaps better, certain levels of critical self-consciousness about the perhaps too easy righteousness that can go with it. It’s a very sore and difficult subject for many people, but I try and suggest that perhaps the central dimension of academic freedom has always been generated, in the end, by the question of the university’s relation to the state as well as to the market. Here in South Africa, you can definitely feel the pressures from both sides, and I am perhaps quixotic in thinking that resisting these pressures is one of the things that identifies one of the real and significant social roles of higher education: the creation of dissent. After all, what is the marker of the PhD if not learning enough of the given state of knowledge and belief to at times not simply confirm this, and add to the existing knowledge paradigm, but to question it and take it further? Perhaps it’s best summed up in the paradox that a university education—or at least one of its prime identifying characteristics—should provide you with the state-of-the-art knowledge in a discipline that you can only get if you are going beyond and querying state of the art knowledge…I believe every good graduate student—in the sciences and the humanities—experiences this, or at least comes to the very edge of experiencing it (though the pressures of throughput, template-driven PhDs and methodological uniformity are undermining this).

ROURKE: Roberto Shwarz’s Misplaced Ideas (1992) comes to mind here. I was rather chuffed to see political theorist Jacques Rancière’s concept of “dissensus” make its way into your argument. One can certainly see the relevance of a concept like “dissensus” and we can perhaps add that it is an instance of what Rancière formulates as a “distribution of the sensible”. What exactly is the idea of “dissensus” in this context?

HIGGINS: In the context of Academic Freedom? Well, I do think that one thing I found in examining samples of higher-education policy worldwide was something I described as an “excluding consensus”—as so often happens, once the phrase was found, it found its echoes and points of contact with other theorists and their formulations of the same or similar experiences, and Rancière’s “dissensus” was certainly one of those. But what it emerged from was the concrete analysis of a range of policy documents—from Britain, from Australia, from the USA, as well as from RSA—that repeatedly made claims for the consensual nature of their conclusions, but could only do so by obviously ignoring the statements, comments and criticisms of opponents to their vision. “Excluding consensus” then seemed a neat way to capture that dynamic of policy argument, or rather the rhetoric of that argument. And once that was done, connections to Rancière’s more theoretical discussion became apparent and useful, most notably with his concept of the “dissensual”, understood, broadly speaking, as the ways in which the body politic doesn’t have the self-identity it would like to claim for itself, and how important this failure is when it comes to any serious consideration of the received idea and practice of democracy. It’s perhaps important here to note the ways in which the concrete analysis led into theory, rather than being the product of it: this refers back to what I was just saying in the sense that all too often analysis that begins with an available theoretical template doesn’t really read the textual materials, but instead scans them…I prefer, in a sense, theory to come in a sense after reading, as a way of enriching it, rather than come before, and in a sense impoverishing the reading—though the temporality of all this is far from simple! That’s why I think theoretical reflection is a mode of reading and thinking that has to be taught and experienced in its own terms, rather than reduced to a “consumer’s choice”…Special offer for one week only on psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet, to be replaced next week by Marxist readings of the text…Somehow, this comes together for me in the idea of montage and juxtaposition as the genuinely experimental, yielding unthought of things, rather than confirming what you already know or believe or assume to be interesting…And, apart from political necessity, I guess that’s why I try and stay open to reading not just poems, novels, films, and theories but also to find something intellectually interesting, even in the policy documents and discourse that make up much of the archive of the book.

ROURKE: Speaking formally, the “Interviews” with Jakes Gerwel, Edward W. Said and Terry Eagleton that make up the latter part of the book are incredibly interesting and give a multi-valence of perspectives into the need for academic freedom. This is also counterbalanced quite wonderfully with J. M. Coetzee’s somewhat pessimistic “Foreword”. All these voices in the debate help, I think, to bring us closer to resolution; and you state in your concluding remarks that “a defence of the humanities has to be a defence of the humanities”. A type of ringing of the bell as it were. What is your vision here?

HIGGINS: Well, I think it goes back to matters raised by your previous question.   As you know, the recent attempt by people like Peter Vale and Jonathan Jansen, through the Academy of Science, to bring the question of the humanities in higher education onto the policy agenda in a focused way did, to some extent succeed. But one of the manifestations of that success was entirely unexpected. Minister Nzimande, who Peter interviewed at an early stage in the Academy of Science project that I worked with and that feeds into the Academic Freedom book, appeared entirely sympathetic to our initiative – sympathetic enough to launch his own enquiry into the humanities, the Charter for the Humanities project! This then ran parallel to our own enquiry, and, despite our best efforts, in some senses in competition with it. Here I see the danger (as I write elsewhere) of an imperfect synecdoche, one in which the part is mistakenly taken for the whole. What I mean by this is the way in which, in any objective kind of survey, what we are already seeing in South Africa higher education is a thinning out of disciplines in ways that I fear will ultimately undermine them, and lead more easily to their demise. What I mean by this is the easily observable trend through which disciplinary departments are slowly becoming departments in which only one or two specialised areas are actually supported and are at work, and in which graduate students are becoming narrower and narrower in their specialist fields. You might say this is just inevitable given the significant underfunding of the higher-education project recently reported on by the Ramaphosa Commission, and quite all right, in bean-counter terms, as long as you are producing good, specialised research…But the danger is then, if you like, of a certain in-breeding as inevitably the necessary refreshment of paradigms through contact and even friction with different areas of specialisation within disciplines is lacking…The danger is that you end up circulating ever-more stale received ideas in a closed intellectual environment, which is precisely the opposite of what a university should be! Similarly, there is the observable trend in which, when you talk of supporting the humanities, that is really a code for one of two things: either supporting those areas in the humanities, or those areas within disciplines in the humanities, that are closest to the largely positivist paradigms of quantitative social sciences, or supporting those that in evident and unthinking ways seem to be directly in line with national agendas. You then get the kind of distortions that I see in quite a lot of applications across Southern Africa in which, for example, a perfectly straightforward (in academic and scholarly terms) proposal for supporting scholarly research into a classical text on medicine is distorted and bent out of shape to make a pretence that it will throw light on, say, the spread of Ebola, as that kind of direct relevance is all a certain kind of research funding can understand (thus demonstrating that it doesn’t understand scholarly research at all, or where its social values lie). And something like the spectre of the most authoritarian and conservative attitudes hangs over all this, something like what the Bush administration sought to do, offering support for patriotic projects made to enhance the prestige of national culture…So the danger is you can easily end up with a situation in which you proudly say you are supporting the humanities, but in practice you are offering selective support for certain disciplinary areas, and certain kinds of objects, while denying and restricting support to whatever does not fit the largely unquestioned frame or template…And that’s why, in the book, I try and put forward a different way of identifying work in the humanities, not by canon or object, but by the very general methods of a critical literacy, common to all disciplines and disciplinary areas, and suggesting this is what should be supported: the humanities as a whole, and if there are difficult decisions to be made, these should be made on academic grounds and not populist ones. The focus should be on the skills of reading, interpretation, research and scholarly enquiry, and not just the “immediately obvious relevance” of the object. And that’s why I say, if you are to say you are supporting the humanities, it is very important that support is inclusive and not exclusionary from the very beginning. We’ll have to wait and see whether this is what happens as the Institute begins supporting projects…And that’s also why, in the book and elsewhere, I argue for an understanding of the humanities in terms of a form of attention, rather than as a set of (often canonical) contents, and I suggest that a way of seeing the unity of the humanities is to see them all deploying, with different emphases, core skills in textual analysis and argument, with theoretical understanding and historical comprehension working together (rather than, as all too often) working against each other and in bitter competition. At the centre of this is the attention given to reading, to what I call in my teaching “slow reading”, which is where you are going to find the friction with received ideas that is the mark of advanced, reflective study.

ROURKE: The T. B. Davie memorial lectures held here at UCT have proved to be of immense importance. Are there any upcoming events that you know of?

HIGGINS: Well I was on the committee for about seventeen years, but I haven’t been on it for quite a while (the usual term is, I think, five years or so). I recently wrote to Henry Giroux in the USA to see whether he would be interested in coming over, but he said bad health inhibited him from making such a long trip, and had some thoughts for other people to suggest…And I do usually attend the events, and sometimes interview the people who come if that appeals and seems worthwhile. But I think they are still a good thing to have. You know there was a time when UCT did think of stopping the lectures after 1994? I was one of the people who said I thought it would be a mistake to do that, because while the problems might be different, in the post-apartheid (or so-called post-apartheid) period, undoubtedly there would still be problems. I think most people would agree with that now, and support the idea of the lectures going on, though of course the struggles around academic freedom are likely to change or be perceived differently as circumstances change.

ROURKE: I would like to say a tentative thank you for your time, and just ask one more question. Why academic freedom? Does your interest in the topic go beyond the boundaries of the book and its discussions?

HIGGINS: Well, the short poem or text that comes at the beginning of the book might give some clue to that. It’s dedicated to my sisters, and I suppose indicates a private or personal connection to the abstract topic of academic freedom. If you have a look at it, you’ll see it’s all about the dynamics of inclusion/exclusion in play around higher education. It’s an essential topic here: how to deal with that dynamic creatively, rather than to reinforce its negative side. My own background—actually in common with quite a few people in higher education, enough for this to be something someone like Pierre Bourdieu has analysed in some technical detail—was a pretty impoverished one, and I started off excluded, confined to what was called the Purple Table at school, the table that was never asked up to read or participate in school work because we had all been assigned to the “unteachable”. It was only when we had a student teacher come in, one who insisted on calling up all the kids to read to assess their skills, that it was discovered I could actually read, and, indeed, was one of the top readers in the class. The reasons behind or within this are too complex to go into here, but matched a pattern of inclusion and exclusion that seemed to alternate through most of my schooling, until it seemed it was broken by my getting through the Cambridge Entrance Exam necessary for admission to King’s College. King’s seemed a magical place, a place, if you like, where academic freedom was embodied, and it left a powerful mark on me, showing how liberating education could be…At the same time, and to go back to what I mentioned earlier, it was also marked by exclusion, and Raymond [Williams] never did become my doctoral supervisor because the Faculty—in a well-known conflict over Marxism and post-structuralism—wouldn’t let in students who had worked with a radical lecturer, who was himself refused tenure…Similarly, in Geneva I founded something called the Cultural Studies Group, something that with a very small amount of funding brought to the department in Geneva—quite a lazy and conservative place—a stimulating range of artists and academics working on the boundaries of culture and politics…I was under tremendous pressure to close that down, as the work it did and the enthusiasm it solicited from the students proved embarrassing to the department, though was highly prized by some of the intellectual leaders in the university…After I left, though Bill Readings (whose work I mention in the book) tried to take it over and continue it, he was threatened with dismissal if he did so…So that in a way you could say that I was primed to be interested in academic freedom, as personally it had meant so much to me, but I also had several concrete experiences of what it meant to be deprived of it…If I may close on just one further anecdote, there was the time I was invited to Zurich to lecture on anything I liked, only to be told—after the first rather technical and perhaps even arid lecture on affinities between Wittgenstein and aspects of Marxist or cultural materialist criticism—that I would not be allowed to give the remaining two lectures in the series of three, as Zurich did not want to have anything to do with Marxism! Experiencing these kind of things cannot help but leave you with a sense that academic freedom issues really do stand at the heart of higher education.


Warren Jeremy Rourke is currently enrolled for a coursework Master’s degree in English Literature and Modernity at UCT. His focus is on Lumpenproletarianism, which is to say the representation of social misfits and outcasts, of all varieties, in contemporary South African fiction. He has a BA in Media, Communication and Culture and an Honours in English Literature from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
John Higgins is a multi-award-winning A-rated humanist with multiple books and publications. He currently holds the Ardene Chair in Literature at UCT where he is also, but not exclusively, a fellow. His research interests include contemporary literature and culture as well as higher-education policy and the politics that comes with it. He has recently been involved in the Council of Higher Education’s twenty-year review of higher education in South Africa and is a frequent commentator on higher-education matters in the Mail and Guardian and Times Literary Supplement. His latest work, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa, is a 2013 publication by Wits University Press. Bucknell University Press produced a US edition in 2014.