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. 

 

 

Bite Size Theory: The Visual World of French Theory

Photo Yann Revol“I argue both directly and implicitly that it was the confrontation with the explosion of the art world and its discourses – as well as events on the street and the barricades – that released a generation of philosophers from the ivory tower of the École Normale Supérieure and that their engagement with contemporary art played a crucial role in formulating the new postmodern mindset”.

Sarah Wilson, 2010, The Visual World of French Theory: Figurations, Yale University Press.

French Disko

JDOne of the thoughts I had when I started this blog was a semi-serious idea of trying to write about an asymmetry: I had been reading lots of Simon Reynolds, and was struck by a sense that while lots of late ’70s early ’80s new wave music was influenced by French Theory of a certain sort (all those art school boys and girls), French Theory itself is largely devoid of any pop sensibility at all (Roland Barthes is perhaps the exception who proves the general rule, and for that very reason, might just be the most interesting thinker of the whole lot).

Anyway, as I said, this is only a semi-serious, half-formed idea, which is what blog posts are for after all. Buy me a drink, or two, and I might be prepared to develop and defend some hypothesis of some sort around it. The canon of French Theory has impeccably modernist cultural reference points – Kafka, Boulez, Mallarmé, Artaud, that sort of thing. And a heavy investment in Kant’s Third Critique too. Not very ‘pop’ at all, really (maybe work on ‘Film’ is an exception, but actually, ‘Film’ is a terribly arty way of thinking about movies). Whatever hypothesis it is that I might want to defend should this thought ever become more than a half-formed one would be around the distinctiveness of ‘pop’ in relation to more serious sounding topics such as the popular, populism, the everyday, or the ordinary. None of which, however much you like them as concepts, have very much to do with fun. The semi-serious thought has to do with the idea that theories of culture, meaning, subjectivity and the like tend to be based on very select canons of favoured texts, which are thought to exemplify or allegorise or serve as best-case analogies for cultural processes in general. Or, just that it matters which cultural texts underwrite general theories of culture (should I admit that the only reason I know or appreciate anything about that canon of avant-garde modernism is because I once read too much Theory?).

Scan 130200001-1The reason I have been thinking about this recently is entirely frivolous. We are about to embark on our first overseas holiday with our children, to France, and part of my fatherly role in this is obviously to make sure we have things to listen to in the car – I’m the playlist monitor. So I have been trying to construct a ‘French Pop’ playlist, obviously. There are certain rules – it has to have about 14-15 songs on it, so it can be burnt to a disk for playing in the car; it has to be able to sustain the interest of a toddler and a 6 year old on a long journey (so it’s an ‘experiment’); it consists of songs we already have (with a couple of exceptions – I learnt some things doing this); and it is flexibly francophile rather than narrowly French (in the spirit of the Frenchness of French Theory).

Avoiding things like Michelle, Psycho Killer, Roxy Music’s Song for Europe, difficult songs by Throwing Muses, various Blondie/Debbie Harry possibilities, as well as anything by the Violent Femmes or St. Etienne, and fully aware that I am exposing something about my own tastes which is perhaps left private, here is the list:

  1. Get Lucky, Daft Punk
  2. Désenchantée, Mylène Farmer
  3. Ping Pong, Stereolab
  4. Le Freak, The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain
  5. Spacer, Sheila B Devotion
  6. Lady Marmalade, LaBelle
  7. Tu veux ou tu veux pas, Brigitte Bardot
  8. Complainte Pour Ste Catherine, Kate & Anna McGarrigle
  9. La Danse De Mardi Gras, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys
  10. Un Gaou a Oran, 113 Clan, Magic System & Mohamed Lamine
  11. Marieke, Jacques Brel
  12. Non La Vie N’est Pas Triste, Martha Wainwright
  13. Bonnie and Clyde, Brigitte Bardot & Serge Gainsbourg
  14. Don’t Go, Nouvelle Vague (rather than this, which was vetoed as not age-appropriate).
  15. Ça plane pour moi, Plastic Bertrand

I’m not sure if the list is clarifying for me what exactly it is that my semi-formed hypothesis should be, other than to confirm that the lack of pop sensibility amongst a generation of French thinkers can’t be blamed on an absence of good pop. There is actually some Marx in there somewhere, as well as Cioran too, apparently, so something for the Theory-boys. As well as trying to be catchy, I’m assuming that listening to this as we drive across Normandy will help to refresh all those useful phrases one needs when holidaying in France: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, c’est soi?’

Why Theory? indeed.

My Daily Me

These are the three things that caught my eye during a 5 minute scroll through Twitter this afternoon, while very definitely not working: George Steiner reviewing a French book about American theory-wars about French Theory – Steiner is a smart grump on these matters; an essay on book hoarding [they aren’t just objects, they are pieces of one’s mind]; and Christopher Newfield reflecting on the ongoing unmaking of the Public University in the USA. I think I need a hobby.