15 June, 2002Issue 1.1

Email This Article Print This Article

The ‘Tunnel Vision’ of the Academy?

Chris Bradley

Maybe our goals in producing The Oxonian Review can be approached through a couple of comments on a book I’ve just been reading: Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher (Fourth Estate, 2001).

The ‘Underground Philosopher’ is Christopher Ross, an ex-lawyer and, he tell us proudly, a philosopher only in a non-academic sense: ‘I do not mean a philosopher in the western modern academic tradition — an arena which often seems devoid of contemporary and practical relevance’.

The book follows the loose narrative of Ross training for and then taking up his job as a London Underground Station Assistant, but his real interest is in providing bite-sized nuggets of insight for ‘philosophical’ contemplation. Gathered during his months of working part-time in the Oxford Circus station, and generally applicable to the plight of the individual in contemporary western society, his observations and anecdotes range widely in style and quality.

After describing some different, characteristic gaits he noticed while working in the station (the ‘Pimp Roll,’ the ‘Forward Fall,’ the ‘Knee Flick’), Ross then finds himself questioning the artificiality of shoes (‘they come between you and a consciousness of what you are doing…with your feet’). He then descends further into triviality (‘The British Standards Institute, I had just learned, was pressing for women’s platform shoes to carry a safety warning following an “epidemic of killer shoes”‘) and finally ends the series of observations with a rant against ‘compulsive self-ornamentation,’ which, he earnestly tells us is ‘driven by the consumer society,’ and in the end ‘relies on being able to induce a deep fear of inadequacy in the initially ornament-free, in those in the pre-ornamental state.’

Too often this well-meaning but insubstantial ‘philosopher’ leaves you feeling as if he’s replaced the arcane ‘western modern academic tradition’ with a hackneyed banality all his own. Ross borders on na√Øveté at many points in Tunnel Vision; he suffers from an acute but inchoate desire for non-conformity that too frequently surrenders itself to platitude.

Despite its low moments, I found the book fascinating. His off-the-cuff dismissal of academic thinkers as self-indulgent, irrelevant dabblers in the obscure resonates with more than a few contemporary critiques of the academy. And if Ross on the one hand embodies all the vices of a coffeeshop intellectual, he remains inspiring in his faith in the power of the involved intellect to observe and consider itself and the world around it. He considers it to be possible without the oversight of any intellectual, political, or religious institution. Ultimately anyone who criticises the spotty work of a ‘philosopher’ like Ross is responsible to present a better alternative.

We who write for and produce The Oxonian Review are academics, at least as long as we remain at Oxford, and our challenge, posed by books like Tunnel Visions, is: Can we present a better alternative?

The distinction of an academic life is, ideally, the discipline of thought it demands and the freedom of thought it encourages. Creativity and discipline of thought are hardly limited to the academy, but I would still hope that the academy could play a crucial role in preserving a space for original ideas and attentive, well-reasoned discourse. Our ‘better alternative’ would be to present writing that avoids banality while steering clear of cynicism; that scrutinizes issues carefully and thoroughly without being weighed down by technical terminology; that is clear in expression but substantial in content.

I’m excited to be able to offer this inaugural issue of The Oxonian Review of Books as a first, modest step in that direction. In these pages, Brad Henderson grapples with the methodological and ideological bias of a book dealing with our society’s conception of criminality; Céline Vacher reviews a French historical novel suggesting ways to imagine the process of ‘growing up’ for both individuals and societies; Len Epp comments on a recent British Film Institute retrospective of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, as he surveys the career of this great filmmaker and fills in a history of his politicized and turbulent critical reception; Jeff Kulkarni chases an island, and a philosophical, utopia in Hunting Pirate Heaven. In addition, two poets, Carmen Bugan and Phil Clark, offer some of their poetry: Carmen’s poems question and disturb her own sense of nostalgia, while Phil’s ‘Bitten,’ explores the mix of antipathy and apathy with which nature views humans.

I hope you’ll be challenged and provoked by all of these excellent pieces.

Chris Bradley is at Balliol College, Oxford. He studies religious repression in the late Middle Ages.