A tale of two theories

Sacked by Cambridge University amid accusations of
heroin-dealing and terrorist links, he became t

It is three decades since, in the summer of 1981, I "came down" from Cambridge after 14 years, having gone up as an undergraduate in 1967.
It had given me the finest - and possibly the longest - education imaginable. It had also given me my Warholian 15 minutes of fame when I failed to be upgraded to a lectureship and the term "structuralism" briefly adorned newspaper front pages around the world. For the next ten years, the question that everybody asked when first introduced to me was either "What happened?" (academics) or "What is structur­alism?" (non-academics). I didn't know then and I'm not sure I'm much clearer now.

It is always difficult to attempt to describe what happened when you are dealing with fantasy. In my five years as a junior lecturer at Cambridge, senior members of the English faculty publicly declared, inter alia, that I maintained two families (one in London and one in Paris), that I ran a drugs ring selling heroin to students, and that I had been held for questioning about supplying arms to the Provisional IRA. In reality, at the time of the slander, my only family was in Cambridge; I have never taken heroin, let alone sold it; and my work on James Joyce throughout the 1970s was an unrelenting attack on the forms of Pearsean nationalism that influenced the Provisional IRA.

Granted, there is no smoke without fire, as Freud might have said. It was true that, as an undergraduate, I had consumed enough hallucinogens to make Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" the soundtrack to those years. It was also true that the mother of my children refused to marry me throughout my period at Cambridge (she did not relent until two years ago) and it was true, too, that, as a graduate student, I had been active on the revolutionary left.

Some have tried to tell me that my sacking was ideological and political revenge. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 allowed the timid and the fearful to deal with me as they would not have dared to do in more hopeful times. There may be some truth in that, but at no point did my experiments with drugs, sex or politics ever come into conflict with the commitment to logic, observation and argument that was the settled faith of Cambridge. When the row erupted, my colleges - Trinity, where I had been a student, and Emmanuel and King's, where I had been a fellow - offered me unstinting support. The university was so enraged that the vice-chancellor considered suspending the entire English faculty.

If there was a generational, ideological struggle, it occurred only within the narrow and rancorous setting of the faculty of English. There was a small group that hated me with a passion I had never suspected. This became clear when the process of upgrading me to a lectureship, which should have been a formality, turned into a long-running melodrama that stretched over six or seven meetings, punctuated by moments of farce, including an ambulance call to ferry out a faculty member who had collapsed from exhaustion.

I find this much easier to understand in retrospect than I did at the time. My enemies were the final generation of Leavisites, only slightly older than I. Critically unoriginal, philosophically ignorant and ideologically vacant, they found themselves surplus to intellectual requirements at a very young age, as the "Theory Revolution" deprived them of what they felt was their deserved place in the sun. Nothing more natural, perhaps, than that they would want bloody revenge - and I seemed to fit the part. I had translated and published Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers as an undergraduate and, in 1972-73, I spent a year at the École normale supérieure, where I studied with Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. On my return, I became an editor of the film magazine Screen, the principal conduit for French theoretical writing into the English academy.

Here again, however, the simple explanation is somewhat wide of the mark. I returned from Paris in 1973 with severe doubts about the programme of the group around Tel Quel, the journal that fused modernist writing with revolutionary politics. The flip utopianism of Roland Barthes's S/Z, which had obsessed me for three years, now seemed woefully ahistorical. My research interests had turned to the links between the formation of the national language and bourgeois subjectivity. Indeed, it was to study language in the 16th and 17th centuries that I was awarded my research fellowship at Emmanuel in 1974.

“Theory", as it was beginning to be called, interested me very little. What absorbed me was the moment, brief though it was, when a recasting of the academic disciplines had seemed a necessary component of a revolutionary transformation of society. That moment was over by the time I came back from Paris. Derrida's Of Grammatology, Jacques Lacan's Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic and Gilles Deleuze's Logic of Sense remained central texts for anyone engaged in the analysis of meaning, but the great flowering of intellectual and political creativity in France was over.

If anybody had offered me a job teaching theory in 1976, I would have refused, not only because it held no interest for me, but also because I thought it had no future (so much for my pro­phetic abilities). Not that my enemies would have known - their ignorance knew no limits. Their concerns were much more parochial and, in using the word "structuralism" while addressing the world's media, they showed that they had not read my work.

The job I was offered in 1976, which corresponded exactly to my literary and philosophical interests, was to lecture in the history of early modern and modern English in relation to literature. It was, to put it mildly, an odd post. In those days, senior academics would be offered a plum in return for administrative office - they could craft a job description. Raymond Williams, after his spell as chairman of the English faculty, designed a job that was concerned neither with conventional philology nor contemporary linguistics but with the history of the language since 1550. The idea was to trace the transformation of English through its institutional sites: entertainment, education, the book trade, newspapers and the new media of the 20th century.

An advertisement for a job in the Cambridge English faculty routinely attracted somewhere in the region of 250 applicants. This one had a grand total of four - not surprising, when you consider that it was a job in a discipline that did not exist. I was able to convince the appointments committee that this job sketched out exactly the work that my studies on Joyce and language had prepared me for.

Over the next two and a half years, I worked harder than I had ever done, 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, never daring to look up for fear that the enormity of the task would crush me, always just a week ahead of my next lecture. By the time I took a sabbatical in Paris at the beginning of 1979, however, I had done what I had promised: I could introduce undergraduate students to transformational grammar and traditional philology, to the history of linguistic thought and modern logic. I could give thick social descriptions of changes in syntax and semantics. Most thrilling of all, I could teach grammar and etymology so that they made poetry sing.

At the same time, despite experiencing a period of intense happiness with my family, I was plunged into the first serious depression of my life. This was partly political: the failures of Eurocommunism and the tragedy of Cambodia's killing fields turned every political pronouncement I had made in the 1970s into a corpse in my mouth. Worse still, the Iranian Revolution made it clear that it was Patrick Pearse in 1916 and not Vladimir Lenin in 1917 who had laid down the ideological map for modernity. The political context that had informed my choice of career had evaporated.

Then there was Cambridge. When I was appointed in March 1976, there had been much talk of a far-reaching reform of the English tripos and a new, compulsory first-year paper in the history of the language. Many in the faculty expected that my teaching would become a core part of the syllabus; I had been one of those who persuaded Frank Kermode, newly arrived from University College London, to set up a working group that would map such a degree.

It was this working group and my part in setting it up, much more than politics or theory, that made me an object of hatred, much of which was displacement. As a metropolitan critic and Warburg scholar, Kermode was already a red rag to the Leavisite bulls. He had also become a fellow of King's, a college that F R Leavis always suspected of being neither serious nor moral enough. As if these sins were not sufficient, Kermode also dared to suggest a future that would leave the superannuated Leavisites marginalised and powerless. Despite the failure of the reforms suggested by the tripos working group, Kermode was hated with a venom that, even now, astonishes, his every comment at faculty meetings booed and hissed.

If the faculty couldn't sack Kermode, it could at least get rid of his junior colleague at King's - me. Kermode was put in a very difficult position. It was obvious that I should be upgraded and Kermode saw that clearly. Yet my interests in Marxism, psychoanalysis and linguistics were not his and he blamed me bitterly for ever having persuaded him to meddle with tripos reform. It was not until two decades later, after the death of Tony Tanner, that we were properly reconciled.

If, for Kermode, the "MacCabe affair" was Cal­vary, for me it was a delight. The collapse of the reforms when I was appointed made me desperate to leave Cambridge, in any case. The lessons that I wanted to learn now were of film production, money and montage, and the university that had taught me so much could offer no such instruction.

That might make it sound as though it was easy to leave Cambridge. It is true I never doubted, from the moment I returned from my Paris sabbatical, that this was the course I should take. Even when King's generously offered to keep me on as a college fellow, I wasn't tempted, not for an instant.

Yet it was hard to leave. When, in the Convivio, Dante talks of the pain of being banished from Florence, he describes the city as his "sweet breast". If I were to look for a psychic analogue to my feelings in the summer of 1981, as I wandered through the courts, the gardens, the libraries and the lecture rooms that had nourished me for so long, it would be forcible separation from the mother. In the years to come in Glasgow and Pittsburgh, in London and Siena, I thought little of Cambridge, though always with affection. Yet each return reminded me that the term "nostalgia" was coined to describe a condition so severe that it could be fatal. It is only in the past two or three years that I have been able to return and savour all the pleasures of a time when Cambridge treated me like a prince of the blood without regretting that those pleasures came to an end.

Two paradoxes remain. I remember with extreme clarity meeting my colleague Stephen Heath at Heathrow Airport, as he flew in from the US and I flew out to Europe, and giving him the go-ahead to call a debate in the university senate that would bring my sacking into the public domain. It was a difficult decision for me, because I was convinced that I was bringing my academic career to an end. I did not then recognise that we had entered the age of celebrity and that, far from ending my career, I was qualifying myself to become the youngest professor of English in the country.
I was also convinced that the whole business was of no intellectual significance whatsoever. I thought then that the blueprint that Kermode's working group had drawn up would inevitably prevail elsewhere, leaving Cambridge an intellectual backwater.

The plan was for students to learn, in their first year, the skills in linguistic and historical analysis that would enable them to choose to study, during the two subsequent years, either the established literary canon or the range of contemporary cultural media. It seemed clear to me at the time that this would be the future of English studies everywhere. Yet that model was a dead letter. It represented the last hope of preserving the study of English as one of the central academic disciplines. Now, that hope is long gone.

Colin MacCabe is associate director of the London Consortium, the postgraduate studies programme

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter