Wednesday, 2 December 2009

An academic speculative bubble?

I hope to resume normal blogging later this week. But until that time, Derridata, further to the previous post, I decided in the later part of this post to reproduce part of our previous email exchange, which originally focused on this.

What's interesting to us is the ongoing ways in which these financial discourses frame the attempts of certain philosophers to account (!) for "the economics of attention" related to their work. I find this particularly interesting insofar as it uses political economy to critique the "object fetishism" of Speculative Realism (scroll down to Bryan K's comment in the previous link and you'll get more ideas on where this could go in the future). Harman is apparently someone given to remarking how the "stock" of other philosopher's is losing value, when as you remarked before, the abstracting of equivalences implied by such comments hides the work of making equivalent.

I can see other noxious effects of this way of thinking. Caricaturing critics as "grey vampires" amounts to little more than the logic of "possessive individualism": more people read the blog being criticised than the one written by the critic, so ergo,the former is somehow automatically inherently superior to the latter. But if the former has done nothing to really establish that the basis of its appeal is democratic populism, any appeal becomes limited by its anchoring in either personal idiosyncrasies, rhetoric, ignorance of viable alternatives, or even, dare I say it, successful niche marketing (my next post hopes to elaborate on this point). This becomes most obvious when attempts are made to rebuff critics who argue it is objectionable that monopolies on the attention space are undemocratic, because they reduce the plurality of the blogosphere. I side with neither of these positions. Some abstract ideal of pluralism in and of itself is not necessarily desirable. No, it is the capacity to speak on behalf of an ethical constituency ordered by particular structuring principles that really counts.

I can explain what I mean by noting the significance of Harman's reference to Nietzsche's legacy to justify his own philosophical enterprise (just Google "grey vampires"). By this reckoning, Nietzsche's true significance lies with his willingness to risk mistakes, to confound orthodoxies. So, even though he made many mistakes, he ultimately cleared a pathway for other thinkers. Putting to one side the dubiousness of comparing himself to Nietzsche in terms of distinction and abilities, Harman's reasoning really goes awry by not contextualising Nietzsche with respect to the university. Nietzsche resigned his academic post aged 24, so he spent the balance of his life as a thinker outside the walls of the university. That his work has since been able to serve a pedagogical function attests to the structuring principle of the university: its capacity to horizontally redistribute any risks or rewards associated with the breaking of established forms. It is the kind of democratisation, for example, that Raymond Williams wished to operationalise in his conception of "a common culture". If I understand his argument correctly, the same might be said about Steve Fuller's arguments in The Governance of Science, which hold that the "right to be wrong" needs to be institutionalised. Thus it's clearly political and dependent on the establishment of a constitution. There is no point then in simply valorising the "flexibility" of certain thinkers to move in and out of the institution for its own [precarious] sake, in the manner of the blogger I criticised in my "Melissa Gregg" post- who, not coincidentally, is also one of Harman's staunchest supporters.

While I endorse the opening up of academic discourse to a more public conception of extended peer review, I'm also suspicious when this presumes the initial bypassing of peer review in the university itself. My hypothesis is that there is usually an inverse relationship between the most prominent theoretical voices in the blogosphere, and the attention they receive in the university. Anyone with institutional access could test this by doing a comparative search on library databases of authors and then try out Technorati and other blogsearch tools. I suspect that very junior faculty are disproportionately represented in the blogosphere, when compared with institutional measures of, in addition to their publication records, winning of internal and external grants, PhD supervision, and esteem measures. But I say this not to damn the blogosphere tout court, only to suggest that it is undesirable when it fails to give the university its proper due as a social technology. To use economic terms again, this is a debt that must be acknowledged, even if it can never be fully repaid (for what constitution could ever govern the blogosphere?).

To be sure, when academic peer review goes wrong, it can be as nasty as anything you'll find in the blogosphere, (producing the phenomenon known as scholarshit):

...but I still acknowledge the debt, as I know I wouldn't be editing or blogging if I'd never gone to university.

Another interesting find of late offers some confirmation of my predictions in my earlier "carbon chauvinism" posts regarding the future of Speculative Realism. Yup, there are some attempts at damage control already because SR is being brought into alignment with questions of animal rights. You can get some sense of the basis for the objections here, and then try exploring that blog further to see how things are shaping up. Be sure to read Anthony Paul Smith's comment on The Inhumanities too.

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