[OPE] Where have the intellectuals gone - to America?

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Fri Feb 29 2008 - 14:48:15 EST

Europe must fight back in the battle for ideas

By James Harkin

Published: FT February 28 2008 18:48 | Last updated: February 28 2008 18:48

(...) Ideas are all the rage. Good ideas have always been contagious, but thanks to the internet and the increasingly globalised media, they are now making their way around the world almost as soon as they are invented. As this new market for ideas begins to settle, something else has become clear too - America is way out in front. (...) So why has the centre of gravitas shifted towards America? One reason is the deep pockets of America's universities, the resources and reputations of which are able to attract the world's best thinkers and afford them the time to cogitate and write at their leisure. (...) Assaulted by this battery of sometimes flaky new ideas, it would be easy for European thinkers to sit back and sniff. Some of it is mere gimmickry - zappy headline titles that seem to capture the essence of a complicated idea while intriguing the reader enough to read more. Unlike many European philosophers and social scientists, however, the new idea-makers lack verbosity or obscurantism and do not retreat into jargon. A country that controls the market for ideas, remember, has its levers on a great deal else besides. Europeans thinkers, who were so formidable at producing practical ideas during the age of ideology, need to think about catching up.
The author's book 'Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking', is published this month by Atlantic Books

Complete article http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/27014a02-e617-11dc-8398-0000779fd2ac.html?nclick_check=1

Slick marketing trick, possibly useful. Admittedly the US has some advantages - rich universities and businesses which pay more money to tenured staff and commercial intellectuals, everybody talks English and the marketing (advertising) of ideas is much more effective. But in fact in the social sciences and humanities many of the ideas come from European immigrants or from European sources i.e. they are in some way dislodged from the experience which gave them birth. Recently a book appeared on "The Dumbing of America" suggesting that really US intellectual life is the preserve of a minority, this side of Hollywood and Fox News. Isaac Deutscher remarked on a '68 US tour that the quality of social thought in US universities stood in no proportion to their  vast intellectual resources. 

Quality of thought is very difficult to measure, and also contextual - often I think the emphasis is nowadays on originality, sexiness and creativity (attractive power) rather than on thoroughness, rigour and comprehensiveness, such that a postmodernist pastiche masquerades as deeply meaningful insight, whereas it is only clever juggling with metaphors. "Content" becomes a matter of being able to convey the most permutations of meanings with the smallest number of semantic units.

Possibly the problem is not any lack of bold new ideas, but rather that they are a dime a dozen, i.e. they are often not integrated in or originating from any large social, cultural or political movement or a practice with "movers and shakers" who grapple with real, large social conflicts or social questions. Publishing has become quite easy, the challenge is to be able to publish in certain forums. So ideas get devalued, including the work that goes into making them. What is the value of an idea these days? Whether it provides access, whether it makes money, whether it enriches a lifestyle and so on.

Also, the internet gives "instant" access to ideas and people are apt to try and cream off the latest, the greatest and the best they can find to whatever suits their purpose. It's easy to call somebody on the mobile phone who "knows", though in the last instance somebody must obviously have actually done the work to get the knowledge. In real science, it often takes years and years to prove even a modest theorem, but that is not what people want, they want the big picture instantly, and they want it now, delivered on a plate (or in a book) if impossible. And if the big picture is anyone's guess, what's it worth? 

In that case, beyond a concern about the quality of our own experience, we all become trend-watchers more often than trend-makers, and the whole of intellectual culture becomes encapsulated in Weberian comparative "ideal types" in which one's own thinking represents but a variant of a type of idea and can be categorised, analogized, assimilated, stereotyped and classified as such (and thereby neutralised). All that matters is what ideas are meaningful to ourselves, what values we express, and to what extent we are able to create a world of our own around the ideas we express. The richer the field of ideas, the more important become our choices in them, and for the rest all that remains is "information mining".

Quantitatively, there are now more people with tertiary education than there were ever before in the history of the world, and therefore it seems that it is impossible to say anything much anymore that significantly innovates vis-a-vis what others have already thought up. Every field of inquiry seems to have been surveyed and marked out already in terms of the leading ideas, at most you can hope for a bit of innovative cross-fertilization. We seem to be all humbled to relative intellectual insignificance, it's just that some people have a bigger mouth than others, and a better marketing strategy for their ideas. Inversely, if you have a really important original idea, better shut up about it, or it will be stolen.

The turnover of ideas becomes exceedingly rapid, which is to say ideas become consumable commodities which are discarded just as easily as they are purchased, and indeed ideas can be parasitised as soon as they've become observable in some form. In New Zealand we used to say, "yesterday's news is today's fish 'n' chip paper".

Marx mentioned that the "in each epoch, the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class" i.e. a question of social power, but if the the elites are themselves evidently uncertain or divided about nearly everything qua truths, powers and values in society beyond their own ideosyncratic attachments - except for employing other people to make more money for them - and if even managing people and making money becomes rather problematic, then then what dominates is profound uncertainty about what we ought to think anyway about anything larger than ourselves, and where our certainties might come from, beyond our bank balance. 

Indeed, it seems to become something of a vice to have any fixed ideas about anything, in a culture which emphasizes your agility and flexibility in changing your ideas, your ability to respond effectively to any situation, or finding information rather than create a new idea (hardly possible, since somebody's already done it). The only thing of importance then seems to be whether your ideas fit with your station in life or your lifestyle and what you are worth, whether you can prove your worth. 

But is it really true that American ideas dominate the world? Probably far from it, it is more a question of linguistic imperialism. As soon as you switch to the local language, there is a wealth and subtlety of meaning inexpressible in the pragmatic functionalism of dominant American stereotypes. Paradoxicaly, as the American stereotypes are fleshed out in the local context, their meaning changes, and often becomes far more radical than it would be in the American source.

The media often dislodge ideas from their original context, manipulate them, repackage them, and broadcast them in a stylized way with a stock of cliches and metaphors which people can understand and evaluate. This can encourage a certain intellectual laziness and lack of independent thinking, the intellectual world is made for us, instead of us making our intellectual world. I'm rather tired of all that. "Be on your way, and let people talk" - Marx


I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm tired
Of being so alone
No place to call my own
Like a rollin' stone 

- John Lennon, "Scared"

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