The Fly on the Wall—Handmaidens of Untruth

Scholarly Custodialism?

Fwap, splash, fwap! Imagine a dream where you are ambushed and smacked across the face with a sopping filthy mop.  Why this assault, and from who? A few feet away leers a dour figure.  It’s the janitor of the building.  What does s/he want from you? The answer is spat out in syllables at once terse and refined: to be seen as more than a mere cleaning person scrubbing away unsightly realities with asinine vigour.  The shadowy assailant proclaims that their job entails more than making things appear neat and tidy for the status quo.  And, s/he adds with a sly grin, it is you who are the janitor.

This is what the Fly on the Wall has uncovered as an elemental danger of academia: we risk becoming mere cogs in an unschooled machine if we consider our education only as a necessary drudgery towards career furtherance and not also as an edifying form of personal enlightenment.  We are learning to ask not only the right questions for others but also to dream our way into new realms of thought.  While we don’t automatically deserve amazing jobs, we ought to retain the most creative urges that propelled us to stay in school in the first place.  The mop may be metaphorical but our assigned task, to do the intellectual dirty work of others, is very real.  Perhaps we, as scholars, have, too easily and for too long, allowed ourselves to see things as they appear to others rather than as they are in reality—and, in particular, as they are to our educated selves.  As the folk-punk band The Meat Puppets once sang, “there’s nothing at the top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds” (Meat Puppets, online).  It’s when we gaze aloft that our intellectual potential truly takes flight.

Friedrich Nietzsche, with characteristically acerbic wit, wrote that “the scholar, the average man of science, always has something of the old maid about him…To both of them, indeed, to the scholar and to the old maid, one concedes respectability, by way of compensation as it were…and experiences the same feeling of annoyance at having been constrained to this concession.” (Nietzsche, P.  132).  Sexist epithets aside, we may ask if scholars are mere minions of respectable prosperity called upon as experts to testify on behalf of the ruling class and to mop up messes with tarry globules of jargon and gobbledegook?  It’s conceivable that we are all in training for jobs that gloss over alternative possible approaches to issues of the day.  After all, who would hire someone with a degree in a field so as to have the expert disagree with them?

Nietzsche sees academia as a bland veneer out of which gurgles a pious vernacular that  mouths a dull secular theology.  He asks:

“Let us look more closely: what is the man of science?  An ignoble species of man: he possesses industriousness, patient acknowledgement of his proper place in the rank and file, uniformity and moderation in abilities and requirements, he possesses the instinct for his own kind and for that which his own kind have need of…constant affirmation of his value and his utility with which his inner distrust, the dregs at the heart of all dependent men and herd animals, have again and again to be overcome.” (Nietzsche, 133)

For Nietzsche the real task of philosophers (who he defines as anyone who cares to learn and expand their minds, preferably on a voluminous multitude of subjects) is to exert all of our passions and wiles, and every ounce of our intellect and calculation, toward a project of self-improvement.  His concept of will to power and the Overman do not imply egoistic glorification, but rather an expressive flourishing that brings betterness to ourselves and others.  Yet how do we, as scholars, often find ourselves to be perceived? Nietzsche suggests that we appear boring, dolefully so:

“He is trusting, but only like one who sometimes lets himself go but never lets himself flow out; and it is precisely in the presence of men who do flow out that he becomes the more frosty and reserved-his eye is then like a reluctant smooth lake surface is disturbed by no ripple of delight or sympathy” (Nietzsche, 133).

We must, then, flow out into the ocean of society like an estuary teeming with the organic staff of academic life, misted through and through with manna from the ivory towers of learning such that all we encounter, professionally and academically, note our radiance and take us not as a tool for their utilization but as a veritable talisman of truth and justice.  To Nietzsche, our over-powering possibilities are for the good of all if only we truly believe in what we learn and what we are.

So, given how intellectually-minded students may be underestimated and unappreciated for our abilities, we might consider how to change this state of affairs.  What would we say if we could say anything; how would we wield our weaponized knowledge? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek states that “more important than to give the right answers is to ask the right questions.  And here philosophy can be of some use.  We are dealing with serious problems today.  But what if we analyse the extent to which the very way we formulate these problems doesn’t resolve them, but reproduces the problems.” (Zizek in Steinbauer, online).  Perhaps the questions we ask anticipate and preclude certain answers in advance, such that we need to consider underlying drives that lead questioning down certain truth-seeking paths.  Is it possible that truth itself may be impossible?

Nietzsche, F.  (2003).  ‘Beyond Good and Evil’.  England: Penguin Classics.
Steinbauer, A.  (2017).  Interview: Slavoj Zizek.  Philosophy Now.  Retrieved from
The Meat Puppets.  (1984).  II.  SST Records.  Retrived from and
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