The 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.