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Tag Archives: Times Higher Education

Humanities and Ponzi: Just What Secures the Investment of Thought

In Search of Bubblemeisters

A few weeks ago, in a way troubling to some, I compared Harman’s parlay of an association with a now-defunct, and as some argued, never existing philosophical Movement (Speculative Realism) into a form of Symbolic or Cultural Capital, a capital in which others now are trading, to a Ponzi Scheme. As I tried to point out, not only did I think that this is generally so, but also Harman’s own Latourian thinking of ontology and networks promoted just this kind of “you are as real as the number of connections you can make” thinking.

Yet it seems that this financial/humanities analogy had already been used in July of this year as Philip Gerrans over at Times Higher Education wrote about the same problem of securing assets in the humanities  in a general sense in Bubble Trouble:

The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research

The cause of the meltdown in global financial markets is obvious: leveraged trading in financial instruments that bear no relationship to the things they are supposed to be secured against. When creditors finally ask how much bonds secured by collateralised debt obligations backed by billions of dollars of mortgages are actually worth, the answer is “what the buildings can be sold for”. In some cases, nothing. In many cases, the buildings are no more than weed-covered lots or graphics in a developer’s PowerPoint presentation.

The academy, too, is a market – a large one in which the value of any piece of research is ultimately secured against the world. If the world is not as described or predicted in the article or book, the research is worthless. A paper that claims that autism is caused by vaccination or terrorism by poverty is valuable only if it turns out to be a good explanation of autism or terrorism. That is why an original and true explanation is the gold standard of academic markets: the double helix, On the Origin of Species, Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne…

…I worry that there are no similar mechanisms for correction in the humanities – and not because stocks in the humanities are intrinsically worthless. Historians, anthropologists, linguists and even philosophers (on a good day) are able to discover or explain things. But a lot of the market is unsecured and highly leveraged. By this I mean that people in the humanities often do not write about the world or the people in it. Rather, they write about what somebody wrote about what somebody else wrote about what somebody else wrote. This is called erudition (not free association), and scholars sell it to their audience as a valuable insight about the nature of terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet (preferably all three). Almost every grant application in the humanities mentions these three topics, but the relationship between them and the names and concepts dropped en route are utterly obscure.

None of this would matter if the market were basically self-correcting like the science market, or erratic but brutally self-correcting like the financial markets. When people do not write directly about the world, it is hard to compare what they say against the world. So the main corrective mechanism in the humanities is reputation built on publication and, since publication is often based on reputation, the danger of a bubble is extreme. Someone who takes a supervisor’s advice to base a career on writing about Slavoj Zizek is in the position of an investor deciding to invest in Bear Stearns on the advice of Lehman Brothers. The price is high and predicted – by those who have a vested interest – to rise further…

Acheron LV-426 links Gerrans’s article and my own on Harman, drawing together the larger institutional question of the service and debt of the humanities with the get-rich-quick schemes of blogged, organized expression. The question of the worth of a philosophical thought is stretched thin between Gerrans’s institutional observations with socio-economic concerns that radiate across the country, and the Acheron bloggery attempt to get a grasp on just what curious things have been happening with so-called Speculative Realism and Harman’s (and Levi’s) scramble to boost the value of their own subsidiary stock. The author writes:

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.

Anselmo then goes onto criticize Harman’s invocation of Nietzsche which I cannot recall [edit: in the comments section below he corrects my memory with a reference]; it was Levi who made a bizarre appeal to Nietzsche and Grey Vampires, after he had been criticized via Nietzsche by Alexei: What Larval Subjects Loves to Hate. Nietzsche seems to be like raspberry jam, you put it on your bread but once it gets on your fingers it it goes everywhere.

Other than reporting merely on the spread of the meme Graham-Harman-Ponzi-Scheme  (and furthering his carreer through allure as I do so), what I am more interested in is the general question of just what it is that grounds the “stock” of either a philosopher that is dead or attempting to write now, and how that stock relates to Capital itself. It seems that it must have something to do with “authenticity”, a trust in the mark of recognition established through the interest by others, but also an internal ballast to one’s times and the nature of things. What corrects the mark, the various “stamps” of approval? In the case of philosophy is it little more than poetry, as Harman seems at times likely to say? Is it the more nodes one has, the more “right” you are? This is the trouble with the Latourian model of the world. It lacks an explanatory dimension (a problem not eased by Harman’s Occam-defying invention of vaccum-packed objects). It lacks what explanation DOES.

Gerrans in his worry over academic inflation actually touches on the Derridean phenomena (to which some in the Objectology phenomena favorably liken themselves), and even seems to intuit from a distance Harman’s own theory that philosophizing should include shock-value and the great exaggeration:

There is an academic version of the “fool in the market” proverb that says every university has at least one department that is a national laughing stock, and if you don’t know which one that is, you are probably in it. The same is true of humanities superstars and ideologies. Ten years ago, Gayatri Spivak was woman of the moment, but now she is a very hard sell. Everyone is wise after the event, but we need to know who is currently leading the charge into oblivion of the theory-lite brigade. The keywords are pretentious, bombastic, obscurantist, humourless, ideological. Add a complete inability to state or argue for a non-trivial factual thesis and booming popularity among those who created the last bubble, and you have the profile of a bubblemeister.