I recently had the experience, fortunately an unusual one, of being snubbed. Blanked Out. Given the cold shoulder. The bum’s rush. Evocative enough phrases to describe the sensation of being ignored.
I had offered to give a talk to an academic department where I had previously given seminars, in a college where I had been a visiting professor for a few years and where I had got on well with my academic colleagues. It was, I hoped, an opportunity to try out some ideas I have been working on about the micro-politics of generational identification, especially in relation to those young working class people who feel excluded or marginalised in relation to what has come to be known as ‘woke culture’.
One of the problems of being officially retired is that you can no longer afford to attend conferences, and do not get so many invitations to speak. Fortunately the rise of free online seminars during lockdown has meant that it is still possible to keep in the loop of academic debates. Still there is nothing quite like giving a talk to a live audience and getting feedback from a real face- to- face discussion to make you feel that you are part of a community of intellectual practice.
So I sent off an email, enclosing a summary of the proposed talk, to the head of the Department whom I had known for many years; he duly passed it on to a junior member of staff who was responsible for organising seminars. Two months passed and I heard nothing back. So I wrote directly to the seminar convenor, enclosing a copy of the abstract, and asking if he was interested. Another month passed and I heard nothing . So I sent a third email saying I realised how busy he was, and of course it was fine if he could’nt find a slot for my talk, but it would be nice to have a reply. Six weeks later there was still no acknowledgement.
I now began to feel a bit miffed. After all I had quite a long standing relationship with this particular department and with the college itself. My adopted son had studied there and we had established a student bursary in his name after his untimely death. Surely I had earned the right to some response to my offer, even if only a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’!
I tried to forget about it and move on, but there was something about the situation that continued to rankle. I know that academic staff are very stressed but it would only take a minute to write an email and press the ‘send’ button. Perhaps my emails had not been received ? Or the convenor had gone down with Covid? Or was it that I had suddenly become persona non grata, and, if so, why? Perhaps the convenor just loathed my work? Was his non- response a calculated snub designed to humiliate ? Or worse still, was my work now regarded as so past tense that it did not even merit consideration? However strenuously one tries to keep up to date in one’s reading and research it is all too easy to feel that a younger generation of colleagues no longer registers you on their intellectual radar . A foretaste of a larger oblivion to come…
As these conjectures and ruminations niggled away at my reputational identity, with no closure in sight, I was forced to consider their underlying emotional logic. Clearly my response drew on a deep desire for peer recognition which time – and retirement- does not assuage . Whatever its psycho-dynamic roots, today this structure of feeling is fuelled by the culture of competitive individualism which prevails in so many sectors of the Academy, including those whose disciplines are geared to critique neo-liberalism in all its forms. In practice it means that priority is given to whatever displays academic competence and enhances career prospects; this imperative in turn shapes the logistics of peer recognition. For example, I am told by friends who still work in universities, that staff are so inundated by emails that they only reply to ones from people who are in their immediate professional network. The rest are simply deleted. So maybe that was what had happened in my case?
I began to have daydreams of revenge. I would email a letter of formal complaint to the Master of the College, threatening to withdraw the student bursary. My tormentor would be carpeted and subjected to a humiliating rebuke. I would receive a fulsome letter of apology along with the offer of a special lecture!
Having spent quite a lot of time working in a university where I ended up running an ego massage parlour for colleagues suffering from chronic status anxiety, I was horrified to find that I was now thinking and feeling in much the same way. There is nothing quite like being ignored for bringing out the inner narcissist. If I had been Black, or a woman, or a paid up member of some other publicly maligned community, I would have had recourse to a ready made line of counter attack. But given that the head of this particular department was a prominent Jewish intellectual, and the fact that, despite my name, I was a mitschling,not a bona fide Jew, I could hardly play the antisemitism card except in bad faith.
Then a thought struck me. The title of my proposed talk was ‘Generation Left Behind’ and here I was acting out the personal implications of my argumen , albeit in a very different context. The experience of being ignored offered me an existential link to the subject matter of my paper. Perhaps the only thing that most of the young share with most senior citizens, apart from low incomes and a concessionary travel pass, is the sense that, while lip service may be paid to their views, they are not taken seriously by those in authority.
The capacity to systematically ignore individuals and whole groups without suffering any consequences is a good working definition of that impersonal form of domination/subordination entailed in the exercise of what Max Weber called bureaucratic authority. What Weber did not fully grasp however was the way individual frustration created by thousands of small instances of being ignored could build into a culture of collective resentment; we have recently become all too aware of how easily this simmering rage can be exploited by right wing populists with their toxic brand of identity politics centred around both real and imagined victimologies. Weber was also blind to how personal vendettas might be carried out while hiding behind the legal/rational application of procedural norms.
Being ignored is like having an invisible door slammed in your face over and over again. This is something that happens everyday to all those whose lives, hope, fears, and dreams do not count except as a matter of statistical calculation or rhetorical exploitation by sections of the political class. Sociologically, it is an experience still massively concentrated, if not exclusively confined, to members of working class and minority communities. Yet unlike more overt forms of discrimination it is difficult to establish its exact rationale. And so it opens up a space of representation for all manner of persecutory phantasies, including those rationalised in conspiracy theories.
In the end I was grateful for my trivial encounter with the phenomenology of ignore-ance. It put me in touch with a form of humiliation from which my relatively privileged situation normally protects me. Not that I enjoyed it, I am not a masochist! But it forced me to recognise how much egoism and hubris can get entangled in intellectual work. It also gave me an insight into a key aspect of what it means to be part of a ‘generation left behind’. More than that, joining the ranks of the Great Ignored was good practice for what awaits all but the most famous, and even some of them.
Phil Cohen was a one time Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College , University of London.
 For example the practice of citology has become a disguised exercise in peer flattery, especially on the part of ambitious early career academics . Increasingly textual references are only made to a) a few classical authorities as evidence of ‘scholarship’ and b) the work of senior colleagues identified as potential sources of patronage or preferment.