Erotic capital: how to succeed in contemporary academia
Someone’s having a laugh over at the Times Higher Education. Its leader column (THE 3rd June 2010) is encouraging academics to invest in a little ‘erotic capital’. Academics, it says ‘are happy to list their research grants, reel off their publications and flaunt their intellect, so why not their attractiveness?’
The idea is being pushed by Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at LSE, who believes that academic brilliance isn’t enough anymore. If you want to get on you need to cultivate your erotic capital assets.
She says here that she, ‘coined the term “erotic capital” to refer to a nebulous but crucial combination of sex appeal, beauty and physical and social attractiveness that makes some men and women agreeable company and colleagues’.
Erotic capital she argues is as important as human and social capital for understanding social and economic processes, and in affluent modern societies it is increasingly important.
This, says Hakim, ‘was demonstrated clearly in the recent general election. Just a few decades ago, all the emphasis was on political party policies. Today, televised debates and endless photographs of the candidates add an extra dimension: How attractive are they? Are they smartly dressed? Do they look nice? It seems likely that the candidates’ self-presentation skills, their looks and charisma all played a part in the upswing for the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls.’
An argument that would have been more convincing had there been a discernible swing to the Lib-Dems.
It’s hard not to conclude that all Hakim is saying is that style and appearance matter more than substance today, which many of us would admit but regret. Hakim seems sanguine about it. And she comes over all ‘Trinny and Susannah’ when she says:
Students (and their parents) who incur large debts to finance long years of higher education become more demanding customers. This is even more true for students from continental Europe and overseas students paying the highest fees. They expect academics to dress smartly and take care of their appearance, like all professionals. Students can perceive casual jeans and sagging sweaters in ugly colours as insulting to a lecture audience – it says: “I couldn’t be bothered to dress properly for you lot.” Yes, we know he is one of the London School of Economics’ top professors … but!
Now let me declare my hand here. I’m denim-clad and unpleasant to look at. I’ve been denim-clad and unpleasant to look at for a long time, from the days when I was an unemployable youth in the late eighties. Still this didn’t stop a meteoric rise to the dizzying heights of university lecturer. And when I’m the VC of the University of Dunkin Donuts it won’t be because of erotic capital. It’ll be because I threatened and bullied my way to the top, like every VC before me.
When I was a young shop steward for the Transport and General Workers Union many years ago, an old trade unionist offer me a little advice that I have never forgotten. He leaned towards me conspiratorially and whispered in my ear, ‘Talk softly’, he said, ‘but always carry a big stick.’ I have always been of the very firm conviction that menace, not sex appeal, is what separates the top-drawer from the middle-ranking, flunkies of this world.
‘Erotic capital’ is pop-sociology for wannabes. A handy enough idea if you think the pinnacle of human achievement is 2 minutes of ephemeral X Factor-fame or if you can only conceive of human relations as a perpetual competition between preening dandies. But even then you are confronted with the painfully ugly truth that all the real power and wealth in the world is in the hands of some fairly repulsive looking old men.
The best advice I can give any young academic is: stick your tongue as far up your superior’s backside as it will go (and your stomach will allow), while simultaneously and shamelessly selling-out your colleagues. And then when you get to the top, look out for bright, enterprising young-things coming up through the ranks and crush them without mercy, but not before you’ve pilfered all their best ideas and passed them off as your own.
It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you won’t find me in a tin of Pedigree Chum.
Below: some fairly repulsive looking old men that rule the world.