Academia and intellectual soulcraft: a conversation with Cornel West

The Editors
May 28, 2013
KR Interviews

King’s Review recently had the pleasure of talking with Cornel  West during his stay last week at King’s College, Cambridge. Cornel was  here to participate in a number of public conversations organised by the  Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities  (CRASSH). We asked him about the role of academia and the responsibility  of intellectuals in the public sphere, particularly their relation to recent political movements such as Occupy, and pressing social and  political problems such as climate change, poverty, and financial crises. We publish below the text of our conversation.

Elizabeth Dzeng:

What do you think academic and  public intellectuals can do to engage more actively in issues of wider  social importance that they feel a commitment to? In your career you’ve  experienced tensions with some of the institutions that you’ve  associated with and what they wanted you to do versus what you thought  was best for engaging with the public. How specifically can academics  become more “public,” despite systemic pressures to do otherwise?

Cornel West:

Well, first we have to define what we  mean by the “public intellectual,” because I don’t really use that term  too often. I tend to use “democratic intellectual,” or even the  intellectual as part of the prophetic tradition. Because you could take  someone like Samuel Huntington or Henry Kissinger – they would certainly  be public intellectuals. Do they tell the truth at the level that I  would like? No. Are they too tied to the powers that be? Yes. Are they  too friendly to the establishmentarian views and the reigning paradigms  of the status quo? I think they are. So they’re public intellectuals in  that sense; they’re democratic intellectuals. But they’re not as  prophetic or progressive as I would like.

We have to understand the variety of public intellectuals, as well as  the variety of publics. Because there’s a public that’s tied to the  establishment, and there are publics tied to poor people’s movements,  workers’ movements, women’s movements and so forth. The academy has its  own kind of public. It’s very unique. It’s a hybrid, because on the one  hand there’s the professional managerial space of the capitalist society  that’s involved in elite formation. On the other hand, academia is tied  to some very precious liberal ideals in which you allow for robust  conversation and uninhibited inquiry. Those are very precious. Now,  those liberal ideals are coming under increasing pressure from the rule  of big money, so that even robust conversation and inquiry is still more  and more being reduced to questions of what kind of utilitarian value  it serves or doesn’t serve. What kind of profits does it generate? What  kind of possibility does it have for people moving into the labor force  so that they’re usable, and so that they become citizens who contribute  to the economic X, Y or Z of our society?

I’m in deep solidarity with my liberal comrades in terms of defending  the relative autonomy of the universities and robust uninhibited  conversation, because it’s very tough to preserve over time, very  difficult. It’s like Oxbridge, hundreds of years ago, tied to the church  so that John Stuart Mill couldn’t gain a foot here. Because it was just  too parochial, too provincial, so you’ve got a lot of your creative  talents going somewhere else. And you’ve got to be able to open it up.  Same with patriarchal constraints, and so on. For me, the democratic  intellectual trying to be prophetic has to try to tell the truth and  allow suffering to speak, beginning with the fatherless, motherless, the  poor, prisoners, working people, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, and  people of color.

But you can’t succumb to the pathology of self-righteousness because  all of us could be wrong. You have to be self-critical. You’ve got to be  Socratic, shot through. So you try to bring together intellectuals and  hermeneutical humility, because we’re basically involved in  interpretations of things, and we need a moral courage and spiritual  fortitude. You have to be one who takes the stand, even if it might be  wrong. I was just telling you about Brother Julian Assange; he’s so much  on my mind now from that dialogue we had with him yesterday. At the  Ecuadorian embassy in London we talked about the role of humility in  such a situation. He finds himself becoming more and more humble. That’s  good for all of us, because we all have deep gangster proclivities, all  of us. I mean as a Christian, I really believe that. Greed, envy, and  resentment spoil the soul. So this is part and parcel of what it means  to be a democratic intellectual. That’s why I appreciate a variety of  intellectuals and academics.

Ryan Rafaty:

Your emphasis on critical, open inquiry  tied to intellectual humility relates to the next question that I’d  like to raise. If you look at the Occupy movement, it prided itself on  the fact that it was a primarily leaderless movement.


Right, right.


But that’s very different from many academic  and press institutions, where certain policy-guiding elites are given  platforms of authority with very little accountability after they’ve  climbed the ladder. New York Times columnists like Tom  Friedman, Harvard academics like Niall Ferguson and Alan Dershowitz, and  other writers with privileged platforms don’t have their intellectual  credit rating downgraded after they’ve been wrong time after time – in  fact, past mistakes are forgotten and left uncorrected as soon as new  items hit the news cycle. A responsive institution should rectify that  problem, and so I’m wondering how might we deal with charismatic  authorities and the cult of personality problem in such a way that  doesn’t reward failure?


I think that we have to be very, very intent  about the forms of mendacity, hypocrisy, and the lack of  accountability. Then again, it relates to us, but it also relates to  elites. If you think about it, most of the economists in the spotlight  the past six or seven years – not one has, for the most part, come out  and said, “I was wrong.” Paul Krugman writes about that. Not one. It’s  this sense that somehow they can get by, can have a pass because they  have a certain kind of status that allows them to transcend mechanisms  of accountability.

And we’re not asking them to stop loving their mamas. We’re not  asking them to engage in extravagant acts. Just to acknowledge the  degree to which they have been complicit with various forms of  misleading people, or even intentionally trying to say the right thing  and getting it wrong. That’s all. But I think the best way to do that is  by your own example. A child can get something wrong. Noam [Chomsky],  say it: You’re wrong brother. “Yeah, ok Brother West.” Put it in print!  “Brother West, I want to mention that I’m wrong.” Just by example. Do  it. They need to become better. Then you’re becoming a very benchmark  for pointing out their mendacity and hypocrisy. That you are. You are so  very right.

You see what happens with the rule of big money – there’s a certain  soulcraft that goes with that. It puts arrogance at the center of what  it is to be in that space, and you really begin to think you can get  away with that. Wall Street criminality is probably the best place to  start, where they can just do anything. Market manipulation,  insider trading, fraudulent practices, predatory lending across the  board. They have no accountability, and people see it over and over and  over again. The younger people go in knowing that it’s wrong. But they  get morally constipated and say: “I know it wasn’t right but everybody  else is doing it so let me just go on.” And it becomes part of a whole  way of life: a subculture of mendacity.

That’s different than just our individual gangster proclivities. When  we’re all held accountable over and over again, usually we have to pull  back. But if we can get away with it and then still be celebrated,  still be cherished and embraced by the powers that be? David Bowie will  tell you. Listen to his 1975 song “Fame.” Listen to all the words  closely. He’s a Socratic brother from Bromley. David Bowie: tell us  about the hollowness of fame. Everybody is embracing it. You can’t do  anything wrong. Everybody wants a piece of you. You’re a celebrity;  you’re almost worshipped. It’s not eloquent.

One of the roles of a place like Cambridge is that we know we  produced elites like that in the past and present, but you know what?  We’ve got a Socratic twist that pulls the rug from under. Not because  we’re vicious but because we believe in the quest for truth, small ‘t,’  quest for knowledge, small ‘k.’ And it’s not additive, it ought to be  integral to elite formation.

Nicholas Mulder:

There are dilemmas faced by  academics who try to balance their intellectual obligations with their  social sensibilities. It seems that many academics are rightly  sympathetic to the plight of developing countries and the reduction of  global inequalities. But, to take an example, one issue that looms  within the intellectual community is climate change, something we’re  getting to know more and more about. To some extent, mitigating climate  change will involve imposing constraints on industrialisation and energy  production vital for developing countries. So one can find oneself  committed to advocating what are two very different kinds of truths –  economic development rights and environmental protection – that cannot  always be aligned on a single course of action. What’s the way out of  this conundrum for the progressive academic and how should it be  handled?


I think it has something to do with what  Brother Paul Gilroy was talking about. That we from the richer countries  have to talk seriously about trying to live with less. Beginning with  the well-to-do. We’re not talking about taking their property or their  money, but we’re talking about acknowledging the degree to which we’re  trying to generate new paradigms in which we can sustain life on the  planet. That cannot be predicated by endless growth. So that we’re able  to provide for basic needs – food, shelter, medical care and so forth –  to people all around the world, while recognising that we cannot just  pursue this growth model. And it’s a growth model that is often tied to  the neoliberal agenda and the agendas of big banks and corporations.  Now, what form that takes – what kind of raising of consciousness, what  kind of sacrifice, cut-backs, curtailments – that’s an open question.

In the United States Bill McKibben’s work and his movement is very  important; they’ve zeroed in on the Keystone pipeline. His voice is one  of the most important. Now we’ve just been talking about leaders,  celebrities and so forth and he’s one of the most visible around. But I  think he, like myself, recognises that when you’re leaderful and  leaderless, your voice can surface but when your voice surfaces it can’t  be in a messianic mode. It has to always acknowledge it’s one voice  among others.

It’s like a jazz quartet. So there might be the Duke Ellington  Orchestra but you’re not going there just to hear Duke play. You’re  going to hear Johnny Hodges and the others because they’re all together.  In part that’s what I think Occupy wanted, that kind of jazz-like  lifting up of all voices: anarchist, councilist, liberal, progressive.  Maybe, you know, post-cocaine movement, because they had a lot of  smoking sometimes at certain places. But all of those voices together,  rather than just one messianic model with the celebrity running things  the way that Saint Martin King surfaced in the ’60s. That was the last  thing we wanted in the Occupy movement, because it’s not democratic at  all; you can cut off the air so quickly. But this issue of impending  ecological catastrophe does force us to raise all those kinds of  questions.

[Crisps and water break to discuss existential discontent at the lack of moral consistency]


We’ve been talking about this earlier in  terms of the war crimes, not just of the American empire. You see  Britain’s got, what, 500 drones and now bragging about it: “It’s a part  of our killing machine now too because the United States has got a big  killing machine. We’ve got a little one, so that makes us feel good  about ourselves.” There’s something spiritually empty about that. But  war crimes are across the border; we cannot normalise criminality. You see, we just get used to it. The same way people get used to the greed, we just get used to 219 children dead.

There’s hypocrisy among so many so-called liberal progressive  intellectuals, because when George Bush does it, it’s a crime against  humanity. But see, when Obama does it: “Oh that’s very unfortunate but  we wanna… We don’t wanna highlight that too much, no, uh-uh”. Cameron  does it. Cameron, Obama, Bush, African leader, you know, Assad and so  forth and so on. You see these are crimes against humanity; they’ve been  killing innocent folk whatever form it takes. We have to have that kind  of moral consistency or else we lose whatever moral authority we had in  our critiques.

And this is part of the problem right now in the US when it comes to,  you know, the Middle East and Africa and so on. It’s not just Obama,  it’s so-called liberals that can somehow get a free pass; or, not a free  pass, but that they just don’t want to talk about it too much. And we  need to have the exact same moral outrage holding anger and righteous  indignation when a black president does it, a liberal does it, a woman  under Thatcher, whoever it is. And it sounds simple or simplistic but  it’s so crucial; otherwise, the grounds upon which we speak on any issue  nobody takes seriously. But you get in lot of trouble. Oh, you get in a  whole lot of trouble. No doubt about that.

Parker Ramsay:

You’ve done a lot with music while  working in academia. Has academia failed to lend weight behind artistic  and musical expression in politics? What should the role of academia be  in political music and music that mobilises?


That’s a beautiful question because I think  that, when you look at the history of the academy, at its best it’s been  tied to highbrow humanistic education. When you look at the paideia  of the Greeks the Bildung of the Germans, music has never really been  made as integral as it should be. And we know in the everyday life of  the vast majority, to most if not all human beings, music is fundamental  – fundamental. So we’ve had to get it on our own. To cultivate  critical appreciation of different kinds of music, we must understand  that music requires the same attention, rigor, and wrestling that  literary texts do – that what goes on in a lab does.

We’ve missed that boat, we’ve really missed that boat. And  so in that sense when I talk about robust conversation and uninhibited  inquiry, it’s got to embrace the arts – and this is also true for  painting. But it’s got to embrace music and musicians as well, and we’ve  got a long way to go in that regard.

Josh Booth:

You talked about the Socratic training  that we have in places like Cambridge, but arguably we don’t see that  manifested in some of the decisions that led, for instance, to the  financial crisis. So what’s missing? Is it the creativity and  self-reflexivity that one gets from improvising, from playing music? How  should academia prepare individuals so that they go away and retain  these skills? Or is that too ambitious? In which case, do those working  within universities need to maintain stronger links with people in their  workplaces? It’s all very well talking about connections with unions  for instance – a traditional leftist preoccupation. But when these  people aren’t unionized and are driven apart by bonus culture, how can  we stimulate that collective, improvisatory impulse which allows people  to come together to critique and change dysfunctional institutions?


Absolutely. I think that in addition to the  kind of intense self-criticism and self-interrogation that goes with the  Socratic personality, you’ve got to follow through on the negro  national anthem, which is “lift every voice.” And listen to every voice.

In some ways it goes back to the polyphonic qualities in certain  kinds of music. You’re not going to be able to actually perform if you  have not cultivated the faculty of receptivity and learning how to  listen. Part of the problem of the elites on Wall Street is that they’re  tied to the economists they hire to rationalise their  activity. They don’t want to listen to other voices. In the first place  they don’t want to listen to certain liberal progressive economists like  Paul Krugman and others.

Part of the legacy of John Maynard Keynes here, regardless of what  Brother Niall Ferguson has to say about the future, is that Keynes was  deeply concerned about the future – read his essay on grandchildren.  Learning how to listen means that you can’t just hang around people who  think like you and look like you, and then think your Socratic  personality is gonna flower and flourish. So you listen to the people  coming out of the trade union movement. You listen to somebody who’s  prophetic, Rowan Williams – he’s here at Cambridge now. He’s a very  powerful voice on a number of different fronts. And he’s got a love for  the Russians in the same way that I do. He understands Dostoyevsky and  has written a magnificent book on it. Man, Rowan’s something else. It’s  not the kind of thing you expect! Jesus Christ!

It’s like my old dear Brother Bernard Williams who was my teacher at  Harvard. Well, you see, the thing about Bernard Williams was that he  studied classics, wrote essays on integrity, critiques of  utilitarianism, books on Descartes, you name it. He was one well-rounded  brother. He was a King’s College man to the core. I was so blessed to  see his bust there in the lounge. He had that kind of openness and he listened;  he was a jazz man in that way. He learned how to listen, even though he  had a lot to say. And he may come at you now. He didn’t suffer fools  easily at all, but he learned how to listen.

Well you see, we need more economists like that. Keynes actually knew  that Marx had a point. Unemployment and inequality are the Achilles’  heels of capitalism. Keynes said that himself: the Marxists have a  point. He believed their economic analysis was gobbledygoop [sic.].  But he knew he had to listen to their general points, you see. And  there’s fewer and fewer academics at the top in their bubbles who really  think they have to listen. They just dismiss it all. But then when the  house comes tumbling down, they’re living in a world of make-believe, a  house of cards, then they get frantic, they get hysterical, you see:  “Oh, what we gonna do about…What we gonna do.” Well, you know, there’s  some people that have been thinking about these things for a long time.

And then here comes Greenspan: “Well, you know, I think I may have made an error here or there…”. Come on, Alan! Please! You’ve been off track for 45 years. You and  Ayn Rand, you know what I mean? Come on Alan. But he still gets invited  to all of the parties, he dines at the White House, he gets his  honorary degrees and so on and so forth. And I’m not jealous of that,  cause you know, a brother gets what he wants, and he’s only got one life  like the rest of them. But he has to be called out when he plays that  kind of very negative role in terms of damaging peoples’ lives based on  these paradigms that don’t listen to the voices of others,  especially to the voices of the suffering. I don’t think the voices of  the suffering have a monopoly on truth, but they deserve to be listened  to. Absolutely.


As educators in universities how can we impart  that ability to listen? Does it involve a reorganisation of curriculum?  Must it involve some kind of change in teaching style? Or should  everyone just play jazz? Maybe that’s the easiest way.


Well by playing jazz it means you already  have been shaped in such a way that you listen. You see what I mean? You  join Miles Davis’ quintet and say you haven’t listened to Stravinsky,  he’d say: “Where have you been all your life?” “Oh, but I’m a jazz man!”  “And you don’t think Stravinsky has something to do with Jazz?” “Well, I  hadn’t thought about that.” You’ve got some work to do. “Tell him,  John! Oh coach, here it is, right here, I got Firebird right here.”

But what that means, though, is that in a place like Cambridge,  W.E.B. Du Bois ought to be integral to the curriculum. It ought to be  impossible to graduate from Cambridge University without reading Du  Bois. On your own or assigned. These voices ought to be integral – the  Toni Morrisons, James Baldwins, Gwendolyn Brooks, C.L.R. Jameses, Stuart  Halls, and we could go on and on. And it’s not a matter of just being  inclusive and sensitive to black people. It’s that these voices are  playing a fundamental role in wrestling with what it means to be human,  like everybody else.

You’re planting seeds. Most of pedagogy is like the parable of the  sower: you know you plant the seeds but you don’t get to see them  sprout. Somewhere down the line, you have a crisis at 35, mid-life  crisis at 50, then you start crawling back to all those humanistic texts  that were speaking to the soul. “Now that I’ve made all this money I  need to go back to those things…”


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