The Exponentiation of Intellectuals' Utility

To travel to these other regions... to law offices, media institutions, government bureaus, corporations, advertising agencies [is] to make a sobering discovery: They are already replete with their own intellectuals. And they just look up and say, "Well, what exactly is it that you can do for us?" (Hunter, 1992, p. 372)


In the 1990s, Australia-based cultural studies scholars Tony Bennett and Ian Hunter put forward the question of the utility of their discipline, which can be summed up by the apparently straightforward question: what's the use of what you do? This apparently innocuous question, which was reiterated in different ways in both their writings and that of like-minded (and predominantly Australian) scholars, triggered an intense debate in cultural studies and the humanities more generally, launching what has since been termed the "policy moment" in media, textual and cultural studies.


In brief, the policy moment entailed a renewed questioning of the place of the humanities in the academy and beyond, specifically the claim by cultural studies and other humanities scholars that their academic work should be seen as a form of politically radical practice. This posture of the academic as “critical intellectual,” argues Hunter (1992b, p. 480), draws on a broadly post-Kantian humanism that assumes that human attributes and dispositions, together with the forms of social and political life, have a single normative foundation. So for those following a more Kantian posture, this foundation lies in the rational and moral capacities of the individual subject while for those adopting a more Hegelian and Marxist variant, it can be located in a special process of historical development where the reconciliation of fragmented human interests and capacities is governed by the ethical goal of complete development (Hunter, 1992b, p. 480). A key feature of such a persona is the disdain for making use of available instruments of practical action in favour of practices of critique that will make the intellectual ready to act only once more auspicious political circumstances have been produced – a certain styling of the self derived from Romantic aesthetics that seeks to call others back to an obscured form of wholeness or truth (Bennett, 1998, pp. 21-22).


However, the posture of the critical humanities intellectual is beset by two types of problems. The first and most obvious is that the objects of its critique – most likely the institutions of liberal society such as the market, the state or state agencies like schools, libraries, museums, etc. – inevitably fail by the standards of absolute principle, whether this is taken to be traits of “essential humanness” like truth and freedom or the teleological direction of history leading to ultimate justice, equality, peace, etc. Such institutions were neither founded on the basis of absolute principle nor operate in the present on such a basis, according to Bennett and Hunter, but were rather historically initiated and persist in the present because they are pragmatic means of governing populations and forming certain types of citizenry. Following the work of French intellectual Michel Foucault on “governmentality,” they argue that in nations where liberal regimes of government prevail, qualities like truth, freedom, justice, equality, peace, etc. are in fact products of such institutions as agencies whose continuous “work in progress” is to form liberal subjects that may embody these abstract ideals in limited, contingent ways (see Bennett, 2008, pp. 71-85; Hunter, 1992a).


Consequently, and this is the second problem with the posture of the critical intellectual, is that in its appeal to a mode of critique that invokes some transcendent and absolute referent, it elides the specific historical, political and material circumstances that are the condition of its production – an elision of specificity for universality that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (2000) labels as “the scholastic fallacy” (pp. 49-84). To put it more pointedly, the persona of the critic is itself made possible by institutions such as the market, the state and the pedagogy of state agencies like the school, the library, the museum and, of course, the university. While the latter is often taken to be a space quite apart from the others, the work of Hunter (e.g. 2001) up to the present has sought to historically reconstruct its institutional genealogy and relation as a department of the modern liberal state alongside others - no more and no less. In Australia, for example, the social importance of the humanities academy is argued to be derivative from its attachment to the system of state schooling and bureaucratic government, for example by intervening in the secondary school examination system in order to determine the credentials necessary for entry into universities and subsequently into teacher-training colleges and the bureaucracy (Hunter, 1992b, p. 487). “By constituting itself as a gatekeeper in the bureaucratic system of social selection,” Hunter (1992b) posits, “the humanities academy [in Australia] provided itself with a guaranteed source of state students and state funding” (p. 487). In the present conjuncture, universities may be also seen as attached in this way to a multitude of other institutions like the museum, the library, the judiciary, the media and industry as its condition of survival (see Cunningham, 2004).


So, what has the policy moment – an admittedly Australian-centred debate now more than twenty years old – got to do with alternative careers for humanities scholars in the present? Plenty, I submit, because the challenge posed by the instigators of the policy moment to the persona of the critical intellectual remains an important one today, if not more so given the need to think more broadly about role of the humanities scholar outside the academy. Why, for example, given the current state of university funding and job prospects, are alternative career paths for humanities scholars still looked upon as second-rate or a marker of failure to properly  “make it”? Or again, why does employment outside the academy in institutions like schools, libraries, museums, businesses or the bureaux mark the humanities scholar either as a "sell out" or as pitifully underemployed? May it be the case that  such sentiments are symptomatic of a comparison of these sites of practical action with the academy as a privileged, autonomous space where the critical intellectual can cast a principled gaze at those intellectuals and cultural producers who are “compromised” by their existences within the machineries of the state and the market? That the university itself as an institution exists beyond the purview of the state and the market is, I suggest, a questionable proposition.


This is precisely why the debates around the policy moment are still instructive, providing an alternative to the denigration of the apparently more sullied positions of intellectuals employed outside the academy as perpetrated by some critical cultural studies and humanities scholars. As Stuart Cunningham – a proponent of the utility of the humanities in the creative industries and a regular contributor to government-led cultural policy formation – points out, there was (and is) a “tendency to under-estimate the positive role the state and its agencies may play in shaping and supporting cultural activity that would otherwise not be viable in unregulated or minimally funded markets, a tendency to downplay the achievements of Australian cultural expression from within commercial and corporate environments, and minimal participation [by Australian humanities scholars] in the ongoing policy debates that are framing our cultural futures” (Cunningham, 2010, p. 14).

More personally, the debates of the policy moment pertain to me not only as a cultural studies scholar at the final stages of my doctoral candidature, but also in my current position as the academic advisor of a schools-universities partnership project to increase the participation of disadvantaged populations from a particular region of Western Sydney in higher education. My interaction with parents and students from this milieu has convinced me that it is necessary to seriously consider the utility of the humanities in response to a common question: “What’s the use of doing a degree in that?” This is especially urgent because of the large numbers of young people I have encountered in my daily work who are interested in pursuing a viable career via their passions in the humanities, media studies and creative arts. These are young people who have come from extraordinarily difficult economic and social circumstances (e.g. extreme financial deprivation, abusive home situations, refugees, etc.), and for whom the utility of intellectual life beyond the academy, far from being a sacrifice of the ideals of truth, freedom, justice, equality and peace, is actually the worldly means by which they seek to materialise these high ideals in their lives.


NB: The title of this piece  makes reference to Tony Bennett's (1995) essay, "The multiplication of culture's utility," pubished in Critical Inquiry, 21(4), 861-889.



Bennett, T. (1998). Culture: A Reformer's Science. Thousand Oaks: SAGE

Bennett, T. (2008). Critical Trajectories: Culture, Society, Intellectuals. Carlton, VIC: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Pascalian meditations. Oxford: Polity Press.

Cunningham, S. D. (2004). The humanities, creative arts and the innovation agenda. Innovation in Australian Arts, Media and Design: Fresh Challenges for the Tertiary Sector, 221-232. Retrieved from 

Cunningham, S. D. (2010). Aligning communication, cultural and media studies research and scholarship with industry and policy: Australian instances. Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, (136), 13-19.

Hunter, I. (1992). Aesthetics and cultural studies. In Cultural Studies. L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, and P. Treichler (eds.). London: Routledge, 347-372.

Hunter, I. (1992a). Auditing the critique department: on the humanist understanding of bureaucracy. Critical Studies in Education, 33(1), 15-34.

Hunter, I. (1992b). The humanities without humanism. Meanjin, 51(3), 479-490.

Hunter, I. (2001). Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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