01 February 2007

Who's afraid of il-liberal hegemony? (Part 2)

The preceding post about Stumbling & Mumbling leads me to a more general reflection about the blogosphere.

Bloggers on the whole have no inhibitions about attacking the political establishment. To some extent this also applies to the media and the legal establishment.

However, the blogosphere's readiness to call bull vis-a-vis the great and the good seems to apply hardly at all to the artistic/intellectual establishment, or to the medical/psychiatric professions. I haven't so far seen a single blog which devotes itself to laying into any of these shibboleths, apart from the US websites and blogs associated with anti-academia critic David Horowitz. (If anyone reading knows of others, I'd like to hear about them.) Now, considering we have numerous blogs devoted to such minutiae of politics as Bush-watch, Blair-watch, Hitchens-watch etc., isn't this a little surprising?

Why are so few bloggers apparently willing to engage with the il-liberal bias as it exists in the cultural establishment? Is it because, as an outfit called New Forum Culture (or similar) asserts, "in the Culture Wars, the Left were victorious"? In other words, battle is over, let's just leave the leftist intellectuals to stew in their own juices? And just accept that this is how the arts and humanities work, take them at face value, and get what we can out of them?

The trouble with this attitude — which I describe as "mediocratic indifference" — is that culture isn't just the icing on the cake, it's the driver for everything else. Where did the philosophy of Blairism come from, do you think? Sprung newly born from dear Tony's, Gordon's, Peter's or Alastair's heads? I think not. Apart from obvious muses like Anthony Giddens, it probably came from the ideology these characters absorbed at university.

I think part of the reason for the lack of blogging critique of leftist culture comes from the mediocratic obsession with 'training' and 'certification', and a feeling on the part of the untrained that they are not qualified to comment or assess.

Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos made what I thought was an interesting comment, on the recent BBC4 programme Blog Wars. As a kind of counterstatement to Christopher Hitchens' complaint that bloggers were "self-indulgent" and "parasitic", Moulitsas argued that

at the end of the day, pretty much what [professional pundits] are doing is not that difficult. I know journalists like to think that they've gotten training and there's something special about it, but really there's not.
Now what we need, in my opinion, is a similar healthy scepticism about the 'training' that philosophers, economists and sociologists undergo. Having been on the inside, I can confirm that the kind of 'training' received is considerably less meaningful than it's presented as being, and consists to a large extent of learning terminology and techniques by rote which are often fairly vacuous. Indeed, I believe that part of the function of this training is precisely to exclude the intelligent layman from feeling entitled to comment, and hence to protect the academic establishment from criticism.

5 comments:

Paul said...

"Now what we need, in my opinion, is a similar healthy scepticism about the 'training' that philosophers, economists and sociologists undergo. Having been on the inside, I can confirm that the kind of 'training' received is considerably less meaningful than it's presented as being, and consists to a large extent of learning terminology and techniques by rote which are often fairly vacuous. Indeed, I believe that part of the function of this training is precisely to exclude the intelligent layman from feeling entitled to comment, and hence to protect the academic establishment from criticism.

Yes, I'd like to see a short paper investigating the relationship between opacity and content in modern academic essays...

My experience of other fields is similar: legal journals happily accommodate ideologically approved nonsense, and even physics (my own former field) has become such that one can enjoy a profitable career in research without the capacity for original thought or even for logic (just the repetitious application of one's "training"). It bored me to tears.

Mr A. said...

I recently read a in the news about a psychology study on the writing habits and abilities of 16 year olds, 25 year olds, and 35 year olds. It found that 16 year olds don't write as well 25 year olds and so on.

This article wanted to suggest this disparity is because of txt speak and failing education - not because 25 year olds write better because they have been doing it for longer; maybe as part of work.

Spurious research?

Fabian Tassano said...

Paul, I'd like to hear your views about gobbledygook in theoretical physics.

Mr A, no way of assessing whether the research is spurious without seeing it. Is the article online? I don't find it implausible that writing standards have declined.

Paul said...

"Paul, I'd like to hear your views about gobbledygook in theoretical physics."

Any theories in particular? Superstring theory and its lack of falsifiability, perhaps? ...Actually, I don't know why I'm asking, because whatever physics knowledge I possessed has long since atrophied for want of use --- on the subject of Maxwell's equations, for example, I can remember only that there were four of them...

So I'm sorry to disappoint, F, old thing, but current (or indeed rather ancient) trends in theoretical physics are not something on which I'd feel too happy commenting. However, I can comment a bit on what I can recall of my postgraduate work. It was --- as so much of it is, these days --- mostly computational: I whiled away the remainder of my youth coding programs; endless (and mostly pointless) algorithmic tail-chasing. And there were loads of others doing exactly the same stuff --- supervisors do the thinkin', and the postgrads mostly just follow orders. The misery comes flooding back, even now...

My own research was related to artificial intelligence: that is certainly a field awash with gobbledygook (Igor Aleksander's pronouncements about "machine consciousness" spring to mind). My greatest irritation, though, is the promotion of scientists as disinterested speakers of truth: the way TV programmes just wheel on a guy with a PhD, so he can inform us that machines can nowadays replace composers, or that all the hoo-hah about cold fusion was due to bad science and/or deliberate fraud, or that only loonies take the paranormal seriously. Unfortunately, the chap in the street isn't likely to be able to gauge the validity of these assertions, and is apt to accept them at face value.

"I think part of the reason for the lack of blogging critique of leftist culture comes from the mediocratic obsession with 'training' and 'certification', and a feeling on the part of the untrained that they are not qualified to comment or assess."

What you say is certainly true. However, I think there's also a very strong element of intellectual modishness involved: put simply, left-wing world views are achingly fashionable (find me a right-wing rock star!). Criticising the modern PC canon is social suicide, and in certain circles (the American academy for example), could effectively finish a career. Today I ran across this really nice example of the sort one commonly encounters in academia: a note of preening odium runs like a bad smell through his entire site.

One does get the impression that conspicuously clever people tend to end up believing that because they can easily digest, say, a postdoctoral text on quantum chromodynamics --- which takes years of study to be able to do, and which places them in the upper intellectual echelons --- they are similarly superior to other mortals in their grasp of the wider world and its workings.

...And faced with someone so evidently erudite yet so supercilious, most people would avoid argument: taking on an intellectual who is effectively paid to argue for a living --- and who can typically reel off apparently damning facts and statistics to support their position --- would appear daunting and futile, so many simply surrender and keep their views to themselves. ...Or simply trade them in for the "expert" viewpoint --- then they too can belong to the bien pensant coterie. Sometimes I'm tempted myself, for the sake of a quiet life...

Neil Welton said...

Excluding "the intelligent layman from feeling entitled to comment" has gone on throughout history. Plenty of good examples can be found in the history and the development of the early Church. In those days "the professionals" would try to exclude you and ensure you never worked again. They would also seek to burn you on a stake but I understand, the last time I checked, that's still illegal. So take heart. Don't allow your spirit to be broken. For those who were excluded, banned and burnt became known as the martyrs - and are today worshipped and considered the finest examples to men.