“He writes like a journalist, of course.” It wasn’t until I’d heard that said in dismissive tones in a Senior Common Room that I realized it was a insult (and started trying to remember when my own work had been described as “journalistic”.) Since I read a lot of good journalism, and admire many of the people who write it, it took a bit of time before I worked out why it would be a term of abuse amongst academics. It turned out that it meant hasty, sensational and eking out some meagre facts (probably stolen from someone else) with a lot of posturing. (The next time I heard it, it was being used to describe a student whose essay was perfectly fluent and persuasive until it came to your attention that halfway through he’d switched from discussing Henry IV to Henry VI without noticing.)
After the recent uproar around media ethics (or the desperate hunt for them), perhaps there are few people not in the trade themselves who would rush to argue that this is an unfair meaning for “journalistic” to have acquired. But it did make me notice the next time a journalist described something as “an academic question, frankly”. To my astonishment, he didn’t seem to mean that it was a matter of vital international importance, to be discussed in a meticulous and ideally well-funded sort of way. It appeared he was dismissing the question as of interest only to wizened obscurantists, something which if it could ever be decided would make no difference whatsoever to anyone else. Fifteen-all and the academy to serve, I guess.
What interests me about the way we’ve turned each other’s professions into terms of opprobrium is less who’s in the right (as if there could be a doubt…) but the way it shows up how we define ourselves. Academics, liking to think of themselves as profound, measured and bringing deep scholarship to bear upon the world, caricature journalists as shallow, volatile and hasty. Journalists, with an image of their profession as daring and up-to-the-minute, portray academics as lumbering, irrelevant and wilfully abstruse. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it begs the question of why they choose to define themselves against each other in particular. Being an academic is very different from being a plumber, but no-one sniggers that a rival’s paper is constructed like a clumsy U-bend. It’s more likely we’re indulging in the “narcissism of small difference”, as we recognize how similar we might look to other people, and feel the need to police the boundaries by declaring how impossible it would be for anyone to mix us up.
The same might be true for a similarly dismissive term I’ve heard used in discussions of politics – “theological”. The insult makes sense: if a political point is “sheer theology”, it’s removed from concrete reality and more interesting to speculative thinkers than those who actually want to help people and get things done. I wonder whether the same anxious distinction isn’t being made here, particularly by left-wing thinkers, when they use the term. After all, most political argument does require, on some level, the presentation of an overall world-view and the relating to specific questions to that vision. The squabbles around the abolition or otherwise of “Clause Four” of the constitution of the British Labour Party, which committed it to nationalization or common ownership, or let’s not have this fight at the moment… could very well be described as “theological”. Particularly if that had the side-effect of distancing questions of immediate policy from the same charge, though they too involved the application of real circumstances to a majestic body of theory which shared some common assumptions about the world and how it might be transformed, and which frequently took the form of dispute over the meaning of specific lines in highly-valued historical texts. I don’t know if theologians have the same instinct – I’d love to hear if anyone has ever heard a theologian rubbish a book as “transparently political” or murmur that the reading of a certain passage of Scripture “would suffice for a politician…”?
Aside from catching my interest, this question does have some relevance to my research. On my desk are two passages, one copied from a very distinguished Biblical expert and one from a renowned Shakespearean scholar. They both come from the opening of their respective books. The Shakespearean explains that interpreting the playwright’s meaning is a complex and arduous business; it is not like reading The Bible, for example, where people of faith believe that every word is literally the word of God and therefore unproblematically true. The Biblical scholar invites the reader to consider the question of understanding the Bible; it is a much more tricky book than The Complete Works of Shakespeare, where we know that every word in it was written by one particular man. I’m hoping at some point soon to use the insights of Biblical criticism to elucidate the problems around the Shakespearean canon, so these passages are there to do more than raise a rueful smile and point out once again the trouble we take to distinguish ourselves from the intellectual tribe that looks most like us.
Just one last example – for about the last fifteen years I’ve been told (and been telling others) that the script of a play is a fluid, mercurial thing. It has the potential to become a performance, but the instructions it contains are ambiguous and capable of multiple interpretations, unlike a musical score which tells the performer exactly what to play, and when, and for how long. As you can probably guess by this stage, last year I came across a passage in a volume of musicology which waxed lyrical upon the nuances and intricacies of musical interpretation. A musical score, it declared, was like a play script, only so much more complex and indeterminate because, well, in a play the words are written down and it’s obvious what it means because it says so, doesn’t it. Now them is fighting words.
 Of course this is massively more complicated (though in an intriguing way) by the way the term “nuclear theology” was used in the mid and late twentieth century. As I understand it, the phrase could be a simple description of the competing theories and doctrines surrounding nuclear weapons and their effect on international relations; a dismissive jibe at the leaps of imagination and “Jesuitical” moral reasoning required to engage with these theories; or a term covering the actual application of various Christian systems of thought to the questions raised by nukes.