Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scholarly Writing vs. Public Speaking

Stephen Marche's post on Esquire's Culture Blog about Niall Ferguson is worth reading. It's a nice continuation of Eric Garland's thoughts about "our thirst for non-threatening answers" and Felix Salmon's critique of the "dark arts" of the TED conferences and their role in the Jonah Lehrer affair. Here's the part that troubles me most in Marche's piece:

Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

What is disturbing about this is that making a billboard is not only something other than scholarship, it undermines scholarship. Ferguson and Lehrer are both accused of shoddy work, and the explanation that is here being offered is that such work sells better than careful scholarship. Moreover, the writing itself isn't the "product". The writing is just a way of getting the speaking gig, which, in Ferguson's case appears to earn him fifty-thousand dollars per speech.

Meanwhile, academic life is becoming an increasingly ordinary affair, a job in which you hurry from task to task in an attempt to satisfy the demands of your bosses. There was a time when a tenured professorship meant you could think whatever thoughts you like, and reaching this state of intellectual freedom was the goal. Now, it seems, smart people have another goal. They develop "ideas worth spreading", meaning by "worth" that they can make a great deal of money off it, enough to buy their freedom I guess. "Thought," as Ian Bogost put it, "is just nature's way of banking." (Hat tip to Evgeny Morozov via Steve Fuller for the tweet.)

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