Radical professionalism (2): it is not about appearances

“Radical professionalism” is an idea that goes above and beyond “professionalism” and that returns “professionalism” to its deep true conservative sense. This is the second of a series of posts. It started with a preamble, two weeks ago. This is the second of two posts looking at what professionalism is not, on false values that will be very familiar to readers of Medieval allegory and satire. It follows a first post on neutrality (false balance) yesterday. This second post is about appearances (seeming, or: false being and false value(s)) and their connection to appropriateness, propriety, and property. The third post looks at what professionalism is; and what, in the shape of a radical professionalism as modelled by radical academic professionals, it could be.


“Professional” is a quality associated with a “profession.” These two things are distinct, and stand in the same relationship to one another as “scholarly” and “scholarliness” do to “scholar” and “scholarship.” Acting professionally or being professional is not the same as being A professional. “Professional” is not necessarily attached to a profession, or to professions generally. It refers to one consistent attribute of the modern sense of “profession”: remuneration, be that a salary earned for labour performed, or making a profit. As we’ll see in the next post in comparison to its ancestors, the 2017 idea of being (a) professional is a distinctly modern one, intimately connected to the advent of capitalism. The word and its lexical kith and kin change progressively in the colonial period (16th-17th c.) and markedly during industrialisation and European and American high imperialism (19th c.).

“Professionalism” differs in turn from “profession” or “professional.” It stands in similar relation to these terms as, say, “Marxism” does in relation to Marx. While the idea of a profession and a professional change with a changing industrial capitalist world, “professionalism” and its associates may be connected to post-industrial pseudo-/neoliberal late capitalism.

Google Ngram provides some insights into the historical evolution of these terms: not just as their individual stories but as related terms, in relation to one another, in an inter-connected whole environment that includes but is not limited to us humans, thinkers and makers of words. “Professionalism” is on the rise. More dramatically, “profession” has suffered a decline and fall and “professional” has superceded it. The point at which their trajectories cross is during World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic: a key moment for the distinction between “professional” and conscripted soldiers, for “the professions” and all other occupations to lose their members and have to “make do” with temporary substitutes, and for them to be redefined as but one of the post-war massive demographic and social changes.

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Here are the Oxford English Dictionary entries for PROFESSIONALISM and its immediate family; with thanks to UBC Library for providing free OED access to members of the university:



Enters the English language before “professionalism” does, as a mocking pejorative



Here are some recent examples of “professionalism” in practical use:

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“Professionalism” is about appearance and appearances. Anyone can look professional when “being professional” has been emptied of any association with any actual profession. Or rather: the association that remains is one that might merit careful consideration. Hugo Boss offers a good reason why “professionalism” might be something to think about as a desirable quality:

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“Seeming professional” is an outward seeming that can be bought; it is not a true inner quality, but the outer trappings of show and capitalism; desirable as the pseudo-self expression and pseudo-freedom of competition, conquest, using and buying, where all is for sale.

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Anonymous piece cited above (for, yes, many academics live in fear): Chronicle Vitae 2015-09-02

“Acting professionally” is acting. It is a performance. It means behaving in the manner of a professional, looking and sounding and seeming like a professional, presenting an outward appearance that resembles (but is not) that of a professional. A pretence, a sham that can, taken to extremes, be a mockery.

Professionalism is superficial disguise, feigning, fakery. It is distinct from what lies beneath (an opposite of “professional” or an absence), and from actually being a professional.

It is a rhetorical appropriation. Through association with them, it takes on the qualities of the original thing and replaces it as the thing to which they are attached. It is not just a borrowing. It replaces and in so doing it removes the sense and value(s) of the original. Using the false binary fallacy, professionalism suggests that all that does not in turn resemble it is therefore its opposite—unprofessional, disrespectful, disreputable, improper—and unethical.


Professionalism is a false value, and values falseness. It is surface without substance, or an exterior disguising a very different interior. Yet even at its emptiest, at its most amoral and nihilistic, it still aspires to a positive value.

Here is the OED again, on PROFESSION and PROFESSIONAL:


We can witness the industrial revolution in live action through PROFESSIONIST:


(and hope for the future in 1988)

Looking closely at 19th-century examples of usage, we see changes reflecting a world in which work changes: mechanised and industrialised; skill, quality, and expertise replaced by efficiency, quantity, and profitability. The idea behind this group of profession- words moves from expert knowledge, to earning a living, to making money. At the same time, an idea creeps in (see PROFESSIONAL II.4.d and B.4) that muddies the distinction between “being professional” and “seeming professional.” The distinction is of course immaterial, precisely as it has no material significance in this world. The only value is profit. The only valid ideal is to be businesslike. Everything has its price and can be bought by anyone who can afford it. This is democratic access, combined with a Protestant work ethic and the American Dream, and accessible to all. (For an alternative, see TRUE NOBILITY.)


These values might be worth rethinking:


“Professionalism” is an aura of respectability. I learned this when I saw my first neo-Nazis, when I was a small child. They were respectably-dressed bons bourgeois et bonnes bourgeoises, twinsets and pearls, bien soignés, well groomed, nice haircuts. All very nice. This was when I was growing up in Belgium (a place of interesting history during the 1930s and ’40s), at a time when the Vlaamse Blok (now Vlaams Verlag) was on the rise, and gaining in respectability, especially in outreach to The Respectable Professional Middle Classes.

The latter is a self-deluding make-believe, a manipulated artifice, a speculative fiction. The Middle Class is for the unimaginative, to deploy what little imagination they do have to imagining themselves possessing the outward trappings of nobility; perceived as the vague impression of grandeur and the details of specific tangible objects. The result is never gold: at best gilding, at worst gilt and gelding. Nobility—that of birth or Aristotle’s true one, of the soul—cannot be faked. Respectability cannot pretend to respect, nor grandiosity to grandeur. Rejecting one set of values and replacing them with an illusion? Tragic. For doing so is a betrayal, looking down on the working class (including actual professionals working in actual professions) and on one’s own working-class roots and identity. This is what we see mapped in Google Ngrams and OED entries, during that period spanning the end of industrial capitalism and our present post-industrial free-marketeering globalisation: the foolish, tragic, self- and class-destructive aspiration that honest labour (and sociable mutual aid) should be perceived as non-respectable and that one should wish to escape it and become the (individual) idolised idle rich, lazy layabout rentiers, via becoming property-owners who made money out of land and tenants, out of the labour of others through management and investment, and finally out of money itself.

Respectable. Decent. Proper. Neat and tidy. Well-turned out. Comme il faut.

“Middle-class” is as much a fiction as “seeming professional” is, and as empty. Be a professional. Be a worker. Be both. Be honest about it. Professionals are workers. There is nothing dirty, inferior, or wrong with work: quite the opposite. There is nothing wrong with earning an honest living from your labour. That labour comes in all sorts: let’s celebrate its diversity, and the rich variety that is a whole united working class, and its core values of community and solidarity. Work includes intellectual work: reading, thinking, writing, teaching, talking, learning. This happy Labo(u) Day, let’s celebrate being Professional Academic Workers.



“Professionalism” in academia is perceived as a positive value. (I’m not saying that it is, nor that this is the only way of “being professional” as academics.) We see what we do described as “a/the profession” in sessions at scholarly comferences that are about the practicalities of work, that praxis-in-actualised-application-that-generates-revenue that is distinct from the scholarly praxis of research and its methodology, in turn distinct from theory. Our scholarly selves outside ourselves, in the world. Worldly, temporal. Those parts of our work that involve other people: teaching, collaborative research, interactions with colleagues, and conferring itself. It is curious to observe that this “professional” self is at once the most essentially human and the least. The “professionalization” of professional relations and interactions endangers them: they, and you, risk being dehumanised. Turned into an empty shell of fakery. The great danger here is to teaching: it should be an integral part of scholarly praxis, but due to its intersection with “professional practice” and as the temporal is now taken to mean “for profit,” teaching risks becoming purely professional and divorced from praxis and theory.

Innovation does not count as innovation unless it is monetised. Because it does not count and cannot be counted—quantified, in dollars and cents—it has no value and is not valued. The term is redefined, against its true sense. For example: every clever idea that one has about teaching that results in more joy, more learning, and no extra expense (and maybe even a saving) for students.


“Professionalism” is also something that we are supposed to be teaching undergraduate students for whatever happens next, and to graduate students in preparation for work in academia and, increasingly, also for whatever happens next.


This involves outsourcing to “educational professionals.” That, as we know, is an issue; part of the proliferation of para-academic and non-academic administrative bloat; of which the most insidious and pernicious variety is in those grey areas that—in the same way that professionalism via “being like a professional” seems like “being a professional—seem like academic work. Or indeed work.


Pseudo-academia, pseudo-faculty, pseudo-work, para-work, make-work projects, and other parasitic make-believe are grotesque parodies of the actual thing. They are foolish, destructive, and evil. While I’m usually a fan of “calling in,” I have my limits; desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes that calls for  “calling out.”

There are sessions on practical para-academic matters like presentations, grant-writing, CV-building, and brand-building self-promotion. These are not ills in themselves; insofar as they contain any actual knowledge, like any knowledge, they are all worth knowing; worthwhile and useful in their own way, sometimes they can even be worked with in creative and critical ways that combine them with research. It is also true that every hour spent in such sessions is time away from the front-line primary work of a graduate student (or postdoc or faculty member): reading, thinking, writing, talking and working with others on reading and writing; what I like to call actual scholarly work. The reality is that our students (like us faculty and indeed everyone) need to read more, not less; to read more deeply and slowly; and to think more, and deeper and slower; the better to be prepared for the reality of academic jobs, which will never—in the literary humanities, for example—be purely and simply on what one has worked on in one’s PhD. And, in our field, it is unlikely that a job will be pure research. Even the closest thing to pure research, humanities post-docs, involve other things: conservation, digitisation, exhibitions, outreach, learning new skills, and teaching others.

In an ideal world, we would do all of these things. Unfortunately, two practical considerations need to be taken into account. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week. And we are human. Even if a grossly over-simplified basic model of existence is assumed, for a minimal level of operational continuation and the well-being required to function as Value-Adding Units of Productivity, we need: water, food, exercise, rest, and sleep. They eat into that scant time available.


“Academic professionalism” has another sense, in the material products of academic labour. It does not mean the actual intellectual work itself, nor its dissemination; these things (like this present post, which you are reading for free and from which I make no money) do not count unless they generate revenue. That concrete monetary value is what gives work value. “Academic professionalism” is its making money, or at least contributing to immediately-measurable outcomes that in turn contribute to a university’s brand, reputation, cultural capital, and revenue; via the power to attract students and their fees and to increase those fees. For academic work, that means its appearance in certain “appropriate, approved” venues, for profit, to the financial benefit of that venue (which is what gives the work value, in both senses of the word) and of an individual. The next link in the chain is citation indices and the “pure” simplified quantification of knowledge. Link that to university reputation metrics. And link that in turn to funding—government, donor, investor—and lo: behold the commodified corporatised pseudo-university.


The Apocalypse of 1313: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS fr. 13096 f. 87 v.



(Dublin 1917: after the failed 1916 uprising, in the middle of World War I, a quintessential distillation of the colonial-imperialist-military-industrial complex)



Professionalism can be good. It still yearns for professions. The idea of profession is still here. The next post looks at those positive aspects of “professionalism” to which “being professional” aspire by association: preserving The Goods of “professionalism” and revisiting the origins of “profession” to see how they give hope for radical academic professionalism and offer alternative values to those of The Headless Mindless Corpse.

There is hope. Though ours is yet another crisis of exemplarity, there is hope in working creatively with and against the Corporate Suit, in the manner of the anti-fascist Punk movement and of this excellent exemplary gentleman:

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