Bite Size Theory

“Thinkers tell stories to themselves and others about who they are as intellectuals. They are then strongly motivated to do intellectual work that will, inter alia, help to express and bring together the disparate elements of these stories. Everything else being equal, they will gravitate toward ideas that make this kind of synthesis possible.”

Neil Gross, 2008, Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, University of Chicago Press.

Politics and the biases of media

There are various things about the phenomenon of Corbynism which reflect very badly on the quality of political thought on that part of the Left that likes to think of itself as new and shiny and alternative in a weirdly backward-looking, Bennite kind of way. From a personal but also professional point of view, the one thing that I find most amazing is the way in which this ‘movement’, from Jeremy Corbyn on down, thinks about “the media”. It is evident, and has been since last summer, that they really do believe in ‘media bias’, based on ideological grounds and intentionally reproduced, and that you can find evidence of it everywhere but especially in the BBC, personified in certain journalists.

There is no denying that Corbyn has had a bad press, but that of course is no evidence of media bias. To suppose that it is might just be a version of denial. And to think that there is such a thing as ‘media bias’ based on ideological grounds in the way in which the current Labour leadership and their supporters still, today, does is not only to display a basic misunderstanding of how journalism works, how news is made, how Party politics works (i.e. a misunderstanding of the world one is meant to have some grasp of as people working in Party politics), it is deeply troubling for two related reasons:

  • It indicates a failure to grasp the sorts of ‘bias’ that might well be at work in the conventions of news-making, biases towards things like narrative, good stories, arresting personalities, sincerity, and the like.
  • And following from this, what is really most troubling about the 1980s-style media studies view of ‘media bias’ circulating in strands of left commentary in the UK these last few months is not so much that it indicates a misunderstanding about dynamic world-making media practices, but what it reveals about how this sort of political perspective thinks about the interests of ordinary people.

If, as a politician, you keep publicly saying that your problems are due to the bias of ‘the media’, then you are demonstrating both a lack of self-awareness and a form of condescension towards people you think should really like you. And these are the sorts of dispositions that resonate quite powerfully in ‘the media’, irrespective of whether you are being reported on by Laura Kuenssberg or taking part in a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Vice, because they have little to do with ‘ideology’.

 

Bite Size Theory

“To conceive of intellectuals as professionals is to put critical thought in social context. To put thought in context is to accuse it of self-interest; that is what social context usually means. But self-interested thought, from the point of view of the ideal, is no longer thought at all. And by the same criterion, it is certainly not critical or radical or adversarial thought. This is the fatal logic of the intellectuals’ disappearance: the more intellectuals are seen as grounded in society, the less they are seen as truly critical or oppositional, hence the less they are themselves. The less they are themselves, the more they can only seem to be glimpsed, for the last time, in the act of vanishing.”

Bruce Robbins, 1993, Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (Verso).

Bite Size Theory

“[O]ne reason why the South African situation became so acute a marker of iniquity in the twentieth century was because it was an extreme example of the way people could be bounded beyond their own volition; into neighbourhoods, into families, into destinies, into lives, and into jails if they resisted. This strand of self-consciousness about borders and boundaries – a negotiation of frontiers and a fear of what lies beyond – is particularly (even if not uniquely) South African.”

Mark Gevisser, 2014, Lost and Found in Johannesburg.

Bite Size Theory

“Without a history built and defended upon an entirely different foundation, we will find that Hitler and Stalin continue to define their own works for us. What might that basis be?[…] Its form arises not from the political geography of empires but from the human geography of victims. The bloodlands were no political territory, real or imagined: they are simply where Europe’s most murderous regimes did their most murderous work.”

Timothy Snyder, 2010, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Almost Famous

jhbThe Sociological Review blog has a series of articles on what it calls Superstar Professors, including commentaries on thinkers such as Zizek, Giddens, and Bauman. There are some interesting thoughts raised in the posts published so far, including reflections on the relationship between MOOCs and academic celebrity, and on the relevance of recent debates in the sociology of ideas (the work of Cimic, Gross, and Baert for example) in accounting for the ‘success’ of certain strands of thought.

There is, though, a rather predictable tone to these pieces, in which the apparent ‘rise’ of ‘star authors’ is taken as a sign of standards of ‘scholarship and intellectual quality’ being undermined by the unfortunate pressures of commerce and the market. It’s actually a recurrent problem of trying to analyse seriously the relationship between ‘thought’ and its conditions, this temptation to fall back on a style of evaluation in which one identifies the instrumental and strategic calculations that shape academic life in an act of disapproving exposure.

I have an amateurish interest in these things, partly related to some current thinking about how to research the living histories of ideas, partly as a more general interest in understanding cultures of theory. Long ago, Murray Low and I wrote a paper in which we tried to conceptualise the relationship between what was then called French Theory and the changing dynamics of academic publishing (in the interim, one might be inclined to extend the analysis to investigating the formation over the last two decades of ‘Continental Philosophy’ as the name for a serious, canonical field of intellectual curiosity, as distinct from a term of abuse). Slightly less long ago, I also did some work on the complex relations between commercial dynamics, public institutions, and cultures of aesthetic evaluation that shaped the formation of a canon of post-colonial African literary writing.

I tend now to think of those projects as part of a wider, long standing interest in understanding the variable formation of public life. One thing I take for granted, on the basis of things learnt from these projects certainly, but it’s also a pretty basic feature of any decent account of the concept of the public sphere, is that the relationship between public life and markets, public life and commercial practices, public life and processes of exchange, is an internal, constitutive, and integral one. Contradictory, no doubt, often tragic in a Habermasian kind of way, but nevertheless, a type of relationship which requires a rather more careful style of analysis than the one provided by simple claims that the standards of intellectual life are menaced by such worldly matters.