Trophy Academic: Niall Ferguson

Ben Halligan B.Halligan at
Tue Jul 1 06:54:46 MDT 2003

After reading the article Louis posted about Niall Ferguson's lucrative
"trophy" status, I took a look at his "Virtual Histories". I offer some
comments below:

Of course, there's a methodological tension between commerce and academe
in his prose. He short-circuits this by writing in a very readable
fashion while gently dropping in "key concepts". The net result is the
kind of book that imparts a superficial understanding of supposedly
cutting edge thought, in the context of wider movements within the
discipline of history... useful if you need to impress the fellows at
the Rotary Club as it gives you information for about 1.5 minutes of
explanation of such key concepts.

If this sounds sniffy, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing in
itself. And in the context of a number of high profile Oxbridge
academics now gunning for book contracts that will land their tomes in
high street bookshops, maybe it's a redeeming feature. At least he's
onto thorny subjects and attacks them with gusto.

But it's here that we get into, forgive me, a kind of Zizekian/Lacanian
"negative pleasure":

He trades off his status unashamedly. One's forced to conclude that
continually referencing his Oxbridge mates suggests the exact opposite:
it's as if he fears his academic abilities DON'T quite measure up. 

Likewise, and even more problematically (but at the moment we can file
this under "comically"), he continually defines himself in relation to
Marxist historians. Why the need to constantly find distance from
Hobsbawm et al? In part, perhaps because he writes with a breezy
Hobsbawn style. And, in part, because he's keen to wear his reformist
credentials on his sleeve: pragmatism cut with cynicism. This rapidly
translates into a position from which "the left" can be knocked as
hopeless idealist proletariatophiles... and from which he can act as an
apologist for all kinds of things. I suspect this can't be sustained if
he scrutinises more recent events.

Ferguson needs to avoid the fate of most "trophy wives"... striving to
remain young and fashionable when this (very rapidly) ceases to be the

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