Thursday, February 14, 2013

Popular Notions

So apparently Alain de Botton thinks that "In an ideal world Harry Styles would be teaching his 10million Twitter followers a little more about Greek philosophy." He thinks this would solve an important problem that the UK Arts Council has been unable to address. He thinks that "the cause of intellectual life in this country would be helped immeasurably" if "people such as Harry Styles [were] to go on television and recommend to everyone they read Proust and Hegel." Which tells you something about what Alain de Botton means by "intellectual life", I guess.

And then we find out that Steve Fuller agrees. I think this populist attack on the so-called Ivory Tower has to stop. It is based on the worst kind of caricature. “Academics are used to speaking to a captive audience of students whom they can lecture to uninterrupted,” Fuller says, “but if they have something meaningful to get across, [de Botton] has a point about getting it across in mediums people normally communicate through and through people who are normally listened to.” How does this idea that we have to change the way we communicate at our universities because it is no longer the "normal" way to listen and be listened to get so much presumptive traction? The idea that students are "normally" entertained (by entertainers!) and should therefore not have to suffer through lectures is one thing. The idea that all communication at universities consists of lecturing to captive audiences is another thing. Both presumptions are plainly false.

"The problem we’ve got is the most famous people in the country tend to believe in things that aren’t particularly ambitious," says de Botton, "whereas the people who believe in really ambitious things are stuck away in an ivory tower and no one bothers listening to what they think." They are not "stuck" anywhere. They are at a remove from precisely those communicative contexts where intellectual ambition is dysfunctional. Like twitter and the popular press. It's actually quite outrageous that Fuller denigrates the act of speaking without being interrupted (though this is only part of what can happen at a university) in favor of tweeting something to 10 million followers. How is Styles' audience less "captive" than a university lecturer's?

It's telling that when Styles went ahead and jokingly tweeted about Greek philosophy, he did so so by plagiarizing a sentence about Socrates from Wikipedia. Notice that de Botton wants "famous people" to tell everyone to read Proust and Hegel, without necessarily reading them themselves, I take it. Even if they did, it's their fame, not their understanding of Proust and Hegel that will qualify them to recommend those books. The idea that ideas succeed when they are widely distributed, regardless of medium, is as ridiculous as the (underlying) idea that ideas can be distributed at will. It's as though once a truth is discovered it's just a matter of "getting it out there". It's a popular notion—for obvious reasons. But it forgets that ideas must be talked about, not just imposed on an infinitely gullible public mind.


Steve Fuller said...

It’s less a matter of myself – or Alain de Botton (whose general sympathies I do not share) – trying to be populist than you misunderstanding your own situation as an academic. In fact, the student audience is ‘captive’ in very important ways: in particular, the academic normally sets the curriculum and provides the final judgement on the student’s performance. In many cases, the students are compelled to take the academic’s courses. Of course, students increasingly evaluate the academic’s own performance, but that has yet to compensate for the factors just cited.

The overall effect is that the academic has very little incentive to persuade the student of anything relating to what might be called the ‘real value’ of studying the materials in the course. If the student does poorly in a course, the default position is that the student has failed to apply herself, not that the academic has failed to make the material meaningful for the student.

Public intellectual life not only redresses this imbalance but also typically shifts the burden on the intellectual to prove himself the master of the audience. And this involves mastering the various media in which audiences present themselves. Like you, I also have my doubts that Harry Styles can get his twitter followers to read Plato. But my reasons are rather different from yours. I’m not sure that (a) Harry Styles is the right celebrity to sell Plato (i.e. Harry, given the exact nature of his celebrity, may be better suited to selling some other dead thinker); (b) reading Plato (or whichever dead thinker) is the best vehicle for getting people who follow celebrities on twitter to understand what Plato has to say of relevance to their lives.

Finally, I think you exaggerate – maybe even romanticise -- the peculiar character of the academic way of being. While it is certainly clear that the people we call ‘great minds’ struggled with what they took to be the thoughts of other ‘great minds’, it is much less clear that they were close readers of their works. Great thinking and great scholarship are rather different activities that in practice only partly overlap. Nevertheless, academics stay in business by magnifying the extent of overlap.

As it turns out, I have a new – academic! – article on these matters in the latest issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric

Thomas said...

I like to think I'm writing more as a concerned citizen than an academic who is trying to "stay in business". (I'm hardly in that business, by the way. I'm a consultant.)

Here's the problem: where, if not on university campuses, is the situation for sustained reading of something like Plato, Hegel or Proust, and subsequent sustained discussion of the ideas they contain, supposed to take place?

There is no value in reading Plato or Proust by yourself just because Harry Styles recommended it. (Or whatever activity you'd rather have him recommend.)

If an academic's "business" is now going to depend upon an ability excite the masses about "great ideas" then we're in real trouble. I mean "we" as a society, not "we academics".

I'm fine with the distinction between great scholarship and great thinking. But there must be a place for great scholarship (careful reading and dialogue about the works of great thinkers) too. (And I'm not all sure that the twittervese -- or even the mass media as such -- is a healthier environment for great thinking. You want everyone to write like Al Gore?) Academics should stay in business because scholarship is valuable for its own sake, not because it overlaps with "great thinking".

We need a place where you learn how to read a great book. This will make you better able to write one. Neither activity may be tantamount to actually having a "great idea". But we need to defend the places in the world where these activities are still possible.

Thomas said...

P.S. I guess there are arguments for and against examination. But surely someone has to sit in "judgement on the student’s performance"? The whole point of education is to make students capable of acts of reading and writing that they weren't born able to perform. Surely it makes sense to test those capacities at some point, if only to let the students themselves know whether they've succeeded.

That this is now to be considered some kind of unfair advantage (that has to be "compensated for" by student evaluations of teachers) is really, really worrisome. Teachers know what Hegel is about and therefore set a curriculum to that end. Then they examine the students to see if they know what Hegel is about. There's nothing odious about that. And it's not a trick academics use "to stay in business".

What's happened here, I think, is that we've given up on the university's mission entirely. We no longer think it distributes knowledge. We think it redistributes power only, and that the teachers are therefore only using it to desperately maintain what little power they have left.

It's sad.

Andrew Shields said...

The linguistic concept of "register" is helpful here. People speak in different ways in different contexts. The register appropriate to a university course is different than the register appropriate to a television show, and both are different than the register appropriate to Twitter, or those appropriate for scholarly articles or for books like de Botton's. Even de Botton will write differently in his books, his newspaper commentaries, and his tweets.

These differently "appropriate" forms can be understood as "arbitrary" (and hence perhaps having more to do with power than with knowledge), but they can also be seen as having evolved to fit each context (and hence having less to do with power than with knowledge). The university lecture works the way it does not because the professors are asserting their power (or at least not only because of that), but because that form (with its appropriate register) has proven to be a useful way to perform the task of communicating knowledge.

In this sense, the types of critiques you're calling out, Thomas, are missing the point in more than just the way that you point out: without the idea of appropriate registers for different contexts, the varieties of language used in each context can easily seem like arbitrary expressions of power.

I work in Basel, where the everyday language is Basel German. But the University's courses are taught in High German (or in my case, in English, as I work in the English Department). The switch from "dialect" to "standard language" that takes place as the course starts seems arbitrary, but once it seen as a matter of register (or "code switching," if you prefer), then it is completely natural. The participants in the courses make the switch without any sense of dissonance at all.

The concept of register is also useful for thinking about American speech these days in general. One feature of contemporary American public life is the loss of the formal register. Al Gore's public "stiffness" was not actually "stiffness" at all; it was just that he used a formal register that is going out of style.

Anonymous said...

Interesting (and, I think, useful) way to look at it, Andrew. However, I think it's important to note that in academic discourse, and especially in written academic discourse, "appropriate" sometimes means according to conventions that have become ossified and that are not examined any more. I'm sure you've come across academic writing by recognised experts in one field or another that is complicated without addressing complex issues, that is obtuse for no good reason other than 'that's how academics write'. (This seems to be more of an issue in German academic writing than in English, mind you.) There is a danger in academic discourse of undervaluing good, clear communication because, dagnabit, more cumbersome, abstract styles can result in the audience thinking, "Hmm, didn't get that at all, it must be really smart!"

Obviously we shouldn't shy away from complex thought and complex expression when called for, but I think it's still the academic's duty to communicate well and not to use the conventions of the community of discourse to excuse bad writing - and bad thinking. And notions of appropriateness need to be subject to re-examination lest they harden into dogma.

Thomas said...

Obviously bad writing is bad writing. While I agree it's important not to let the academic genre serve as an excuse for unclear writing, let's keep in mind that there's plenty of lousy popular writing too. Just as pretentious, obscure academic writing can be mistaken for something "smart", so too can chatty, confident, assertive authors be mistakenly praised as a "good writers". What did you learn from the book? we ask. "Oh, I don't remember, but it was a really good read. He's a really engaging writer!" That sort of thing.

Thomas said...

The conventions of popular writing as dogmatic as those of academic writing. And they are as often invoked as excuses for bad writing ... indeed, bad thinking

Andrew Shields said...

@goofybeast: I completely agree that the conventions of academic discourse should be not used to excuse bad writing. But in fact, bad academic writing is failing to abide by the professed conventions of academic discourse.

For another angle on this, see Jonathan Mayhew's recent post on "Mere Competence":

What he calls "the high school stuff" is not a matter of "ossified conventions" but just of basic skills.

Anonymous said...

@Andrew: In practice I'm not sure it's that easy to make that distinction between sticking to (problematic) conventions and writing badly - although I do think that may be more of an issue in German academic writing than in English. It takes a certain kind of skill and a degree of mental effort to write obtuse papers that have all the surface trappings of intellectualism and that may even represent (or strive to represent) interesting, smart thinking but that make it more difficult for the reader to access that thinking. It's just that the intention to communicate clearly gets lost along the way, replaced by the intention to communicate complexity and intellectualism.

Again, I think this is more often the case in German academic writing, where you'd find certain fairly common, measurable features of the academic register that obfuscate rather than clarify, e.g. using nouns instead of verbs, losing the subject in the process, so it's not clear *who* is doing something. Is this just bad writing? Perhaps, but it's bad writing that has become a convention and that seems to come with a certain cachet in the field (or perhaps it's that its absence is interpreted as an absence of complexity and intellect).

@Thomas: I absolutely agree that there's a lot of lousy popular writing, but that doesn't mean that there may not be one or two things academic writers can learn from smart, popular writers who have intellectual integrity. I think the dichotomy of popular/academic is a false one to some extent; I believe that (linguistic) accessibility - although never to the point where it crosses into dumbing down - should be something to strive for, even in academic writing.

Thomas said...

@goofybeast: I think we basically agree then. A while back I took a whack at Gail Hornstein's attempt to distinguish academic from popular writing along the bad/good line.

You're right about not dumbing down, but this is all relative to the audience. To write smart, clear prose is always the goal. But what counts as "smart" and "clear" depends on the assumptions you make about your audience.

In my seminars I always distinguish scholarly writing from both popular writing. The reader is presumed to know as much (or more) about the research area as the writer. There are specific things, of course, that the writer is the authority on, but in general its one knowledgeable person writing to other knowledgeable people. Popular writing is written by someone who knows for someone who, by presumption, does not know, i.e., someone who wants to learn. The reader is not presumed to be qualified to critique the author.

This was also the heart of a debate we had a few years aog about the work of Malcolm Gladwell.

Andrew Shields said...

@goofybeast: But "using nouns instead of verbs" in German just means exploiting one of the most significant strengths of the German language: its ability to create nonce nouns. The problem really lies with the fetishization of this strength in translations. In my own experience with translating academic German into English, I have learned to rebuild sentences so that the work done with nouns in German can be done in other ways in English (if necessary), thus avoiding the "German" feel of "too many nouns."

Gab said...
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Gab said...
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Gab said...

There seems to be no reason why the two things couldn't be reconciled.
Popularisation of cultural ideas can induce more people to become interested in them; some of these people will then go on to learn about those same topics more rigorously if they so wish.
It certainly stands to reason that a gradual approach has better chances of success than one in which a tiny elite learns everything about Proust at Oxford and the majority of people ignores he ever lived.

If really academics do have an interest in widening their circles, that is.

Thomas said...

I guess what I'm objecting to is the presumption that the more people read Proust and Hegel the better, regardless of their initial interest in it. In this case, we're assuming they'll read Proust because their favorite boy band member recommended it on twitter.

I thought I was the one arguing for a gradual approach. A taste for great ideas and great literature develops slowly, with one text leading to another, one thinker suggesting another. It's the "pop star tweets Hegel" model that lacks a sense of the gradualness of the process.

I believe in "gradus ad parnassum" not instant insight. It's sufficient that there be a tiny elite of professors with a less tiny, but by no means massive, elite of students. Those students may cultivate an interest in Proust the rest of their lives even if they don't become professors.

But I have little hope that the teenager who picks up a copy of In Search of Lost Time because Harry Styles said it was cool will do much more than carry it around proudly at school for a couple of days, and otherwise despair (as so many people do) at the first five pages of "difficult pleasure" it offers.