The Drama of Intellectual Life: Performativity in the Study of Ideas

29 May 2015

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT - SG1&2

Please register online for this event.
Conference fee: £30 (full), £10 (students) - includes lunch, tea/coffee
Deadline: Monday 25 May

Twitter Hashtag: #Inteldrama


Prof. Patrick Baert (University of Cambridge)
Dr Marcus Morgan (University of Cambridge)


This conference provides a forum for discussion on the various ways in which academics might approach intellectual life through the lenses of performance and performativity. It aims to reveal the drama lying at the heart of intellectual life and provide innovative theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding it.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, and a broadly-conceived definition of ‘intellectuals’, it aims to show how the study of intellectual work, intellectual collaboration, intellectual dispute, and intellectual controversy, can all be augmented by drawing upon the rich resources provided to us by the traditions of performance and performativity in the human and social sciences. The conference will be relevant to sociologists, historians, literary critics, political scientists, and human geographers interested in original understandings of intellectuals and their practices within society.

Through a series of concrete case studies, the conference will address the following questions:

  1. What is distinctive about performance in the intellectual realm?
  2. Can we identify historical shifts or cultural variations within intellectual performance?
  3. In what ways do intellectual performances within the academy need to be conceptualised differently to public intellectual performances?
  4. How do intellectual performances position their actors and those around them?
  5. How do various narratives, props, forms of rhetoric, and scene, conspire to make performances succeed or fail?
  6. How might performance studies strengthen our understanding of intellectual disputes and controversies?
  7. How might intellectual performances be understood as productive of different realities?
  8. What are the various forms of capital upon which successful intellectual performances depend, and in what ways might such performances act to structure and reproduce the fields in which they take place?



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH).

Accommodation non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance:





Patrick Baert & Marcus Morgan (University of Cambridge)



  • Jeffrey C. Alexander (Yale University): Dramatic Intellectuals: the Elements of Performance
  • Harald Wydra (University of Cambridge): The Engaged Outsider: Herman Hesse’s Spiritual Revolution                                  

Chair: Marcus Morgan (University of Cambridge)


Coffee break



  • Andreas Hess (University College Dublin): Exile from Exile: The Making of Judith Shklar’s Political Theory
  • Patrick Baert (University of Cambridge): Intellectuals, Positioning and Conflict

Chair: Duncan Bell (University of Cambridge)





  • Simon Grimble (Durham University): 'Mixed feelings of respect and suspicion': Public moralists and their audiences
  • Helen Small (University of Oxford): The Intellectual as Biter: Sloterdijk and Modern Cynicism

Chair: Jonas Tinius (University of Cambridge)


Tea break



  • Gisele Sapiro (École des hautes études en sciences sociales): Modes of Intervention of Public Intellectuals in France
  • Hazem Kandil (University of Cambridge): Clerics, Literati, and Islamists     

Chair: Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Cambridge)                             



Jeffrey C. Alexander: Dramatic Intellectuals: the Elements of Performance

Employing social performance theory, I explain how some intellectuals become, not just great thinkers, but historically powerful in such a manner that their ideas change history. In order to become world-historical, intellectuals must become socially dramatic. Their ideas clarify their anxious times, divide the world into the sacred and profane, and provide a salvation narrative to transcend current troubles and grasp the future. Compelling intellectual ideas provide a script for dramatic social performances, but other elements of social performance are critical as well. For ideas to become a cultural movement requires a cast of trained and charismatic actors must be deployed, skilled direction, access to the means of symbolic production, interpretive and material power, and credulous audiences.  To illustrate this model, I consider the dramatic ideas of Marx, Freud, Keynes, and Sartre. 

Patrick Baert: Intellectuals, Positioning and Conflict

This paper explores the usefulness of a ‘positioning perspective’ on the study of intellectuals. Drawing on speech act theory, the positioning perspective pays attention to what intellectual interventions do – what they accomplish – rather than what they represent.  In this paper, I use three empirical case-studies to illustrate the power of this theoretical and methodological angle: 

  1. the rise of Jean-Paul Sartre as a public intellectual in the 1940s; 
  2. the import of ‘French theory’ into the study of English literature in Cambridge in the 1970s and ‘80s; 
  3. the intellectual basis of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the 1970s.

Simon Grimble: 'Mixed feelings of respect and suspicion': Public moralists and their audiences

This paper will address the characteristic styles and modes of self-presentation used by such Victorian public moralists as William Morris, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold in both their writing and in their appearances as public lecturers: these could include humour, irony, sarcasm, and various kinds of showing off, as well as dogmatising, moralising and even direct criticism of the audiences that sat in front of them. It will also be about the response to these figures both at the time and in the years since their deaths, thinking about why, in Raymond Williams's words, they have produced 'mixed feelings of respect and suspicion'. I'll end by considering how their versions of the combination of intellectual and public life could be thought about in the present, at a moment when late nineteenth century debates about 'the elites and the masses' seem to be re-emerging, but where also the figure of the intellectual is taking on a renewed interest as a possible mediating power between these forces.

Andreas Hess: Exile from Exile: The Making of Judith Shklar's Political Theory.


Judith Shklar's call for a paradigm change, namely that the history of political thought is better understood from the epistemological vantage point of exiles, also applies to her own work. Judith Shklar argued and wrote, as I will try to show, from a position of 'optimal marginality', as an exile from exile. It was this genuine position that allowed her to present herself somewhat as an outsider who remained sceptical vis-a-vis the maelstrom of modern political theory.

Hazem Kandil: Clerics, Literati, and Islamists

Islamism, as a modern ideology, is the product of a nineteenth-century intellectual crisis that persists today. The protagonists are three factions within the cultural field, each drawing on a different species of knowledge and accreditation, and displaying distinctive temperaments and physical dispositions. Clerics had traditionally performed the role of public intellectuals. Their field was formally organized, self-regulated, and politically autonomous. And their mode of accumulating and disseminating knowledge (theology and jurisprudence) was highly ritualistic. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a new cultural stratum undermined their symbolic power. These were lay intellectuals studying law and humanities in secular universities before joining the expansive state bureaucracy. They adopted European dress and lifestyle, debated in salons and cafés, and influenced the public through journalism and literature. The interaction between the two transformed them both and disrupted the entire cultural field. And it was this rupture that allowed the rise of a hybrid group (lay Islamists) with a hybrid ideology (modern Islamism) and a hybrid habitus (in terms of appearance, customs, mode of communication). The struggle for legitimacy between these groups provided the backdrop for endless political and military battles, and is far from concluded. Using data and analysis from my book, Inside the Brotherhood, I will attempt to uncover the roots of this ongoing crisis by focusing on the genesis and emergence of these three strands of cultural producers in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Andy Merrifield: “I Prefer Not To": Radical Politics As Non-Performativity

When we think of intellectual performance today, we can only think of the way  intellectuals seem obsessed with performing like PROFESSIONALS. A professional, of course, is an expert, and in our times when every university and every centre in a university aspires to be a centre of excellence, the number one at this and that, every academic thus has to be an intellectual pro, a pro with brio. Intellectuals who are pros have IMPACT. A long while ago, Edward Said said intellectuals shouldn’t be performing for anyone, that they should be rank amateurs on nobody’s payroll. “IMPACT”? Hmm, I PREFER NOT TO. This paper investigates the dissenting amateur, their prospects and their challenges. One great dissenting amateur intellectual, Guy Debord, once said he savoured the pleasures of exile as others suffered the pains of submission. Maybe all amateur intellectuals are likely to be in some kind of metaphysical exile, out of place, displaced. And yet, these days, there’s no real exile for the amateur, no geographical safe haven to flee to, no without the spectacle—only a refusal to perform within it, or to perform in a different subversive way: to be restless and questioning, sceptical and adversarial, caring for ideas that are ambiguous and contradictory, ironic and even comic. Amateurs will revel in expansiveness, in conflict and contradiction, just as pros will doubtless demand consensus and reconciliation. The pro’s media machine wants simple soundbite and clarity; the amateur affirms complexity and paradox—thoughts and ideas that can’t be distilled into trite banalities.

Gisèle Sapiro: Modes of Intervention of Public Intellectuals in France 

Historical and sociological approaches to public intellectuals have focused more on the content of their interventions than on their form. Ideal-typical modes of political commitment can be differentiated according to three main factors which structure the intellectual field: amount of symbolic capital; degree of autonomy with regards to political demand; degree of specialization. Drawing in large part from Bourdieu’s field theory, these factors enable us to relate the space of position-taking to that of the positions agents occupy, through the concept of “posture”. The combination of these three factors underpin the distribution of the different modes and postures of political intervention within the intellectual field. These ideal-typical postures correspond to indigenous models of engagement, which historically defined themselves in relation to one another and which have circulated in the transnational intellectual field: “conseiller du prince”, “intellectuel”, “avant-garde”, “organic intellectuals” (Gramsci), expert, “intellectuel spécifique” (Foucault), “intellectuel collectif” (Bourdieu). These different postures will be exemplified through the French case, where the public intellectual was born as such and where some of these models of engagement were theorized.

Helen Small: The Intellectual as Biter: Sloterdijk and Modern Cynicism


Peter Sloterdijk has developed over the past thirty years a distinctive performative idiom that draws closely on two genealogical-cum-stylistic models: Diogenes of Sinope (the original cynic) and Nietzsche (who, for Sloterdijk, best understood that ‘enlightenment is always dramatic and performative’). Both models support an analysis of the pervasive inhibitions of public culture today and the potential role of the intellectual/philosopher in revitalizing ‘psychopolitical’ life. This paper explores the performative features of Sloterdijk’s style (written and spoken) with a view to testing the credibility of a revitalized cynicism as a ‘free-spirited’ interruption into public debate; it also asks whether, and in what ways, Sloterdijk’s performances might play differently in Germany and beyond.

Harald Wydra: The Engaged Outsider: Hermann Hesse's Spiritual Revolution

Unlike his contemporary Thomas Mann, German Nobel-prize winning author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) lived – during the second part of his life - a life of retreat and self-imposed isolation. And yet, he was intensely engaged in the political storms that shook the first part of the twentieth century. This paper looks at three types of performances essential to his life work, both in terms of action as a ‘public intellectual’ and regarding the ‘performative’ core of some of his most important novels. First, it examines his public engagement as a tireless communicator with the outside world through the estimated 60,000 letters, most of which were written from Montagnola, Switzerland. Second, it explores the content and the spiritual meaning of the ‘magical theater’, the key to his novel Steppenwolf. Third, it locates the meaning of play and ritual in the novel Glass Bead Game, his chef-d’oeuvre, as the cornerstone of the spiritual revolution in a dark age. The paper will conclude with some reflections on how Hesse’s work opens up possibilities of performing the sacred as a path to healing and salvation before the dissolution of faith and values.