Do we need academic celebrities?


[This post originally appeared on the Sociological Review blog on 3 August, 2016].

Why do we need academic celebrities? In this post, I would like to extend the discussion of academic celebrities from the focus on these intellectuals’ strategies, or ‘acts of positioning’, to what makes them possible in the first place, in the sense of Kant’s ‘conditions of possibility’. In other words, I want to frame the conversation in the broader framework of a critical cultural political economy. This is based on a belief that, if we want to develop an understanding of knowledge production that is truly relational, we need to analyse not only what public intellectuals or ‘academic celebrities’ do, but also what makes, maintains, and, sometimes, breaks, their wider appeal, including – not least importantly – our own fascination with them.

To begin with, an obvious point is that academic stardom necessitates a transnational audience, and a global market for intellectual products. As Peter Walsh argues, academic publishers play an important role in creating and maintaining such a market; Mark Carrigan and Eliran Bar-El remind us that celebrities like Giddens or Žižek are very good at cultivating relationships with that side of the industry. However, in order for publishers to operate at an even minimal profit, someone needs to buy the product. Simply put, public intellectuals necessitate a public.

While intellectual elites have always been to some degree transnational, two trends associated with late modernity are, in this sense, of paramount importance. One is the expansion and internationalization of higher education; the other is the supremacy of English as the language of global academic communication, coupled with the growing digitalization of the process and products of intellectual labour. Despite the fact that access to knowledge still remains largely inequitable, they have contributed to the creation of an expanded potential ‘customer base’. And yet – just like in the case of MOOCs – the availability or accessibility of a product is not sufficient to explain (or guarantee) interest in it. Regardless of whether someone can read Giddens’ books in English, or is able to watch Žižek’s RSA talk online, their arguments, presumably, still need to resonate: in other words, there must be something that people derive from them. What could this be?

In ‘The Existentialist Moment’, Patrick Baert suggests the global popularity of existentialism can be explained by Sartre’s (and other philosophers’ who came to be identified with it, such as De Beauvoir and Camus) successful connecting of core concepts of existentialist philosophy, such as choice and responsibility, to the concerns of post-WWII France. To some degree, this analysis could be applied to contemporary academic celebrities – Giddens and Bauman wrote about the problems of late or liquid modernity, and Žižek frequently comments on the contradictions and failures of liberal democracy. It is not difficult to see how they would strike a chord with the concerns of a liberal, educated, Western audience. Yet, just like in the case of Sartre, this doesn’t mean their arguments are always presented in the most palatable manner: Žižek’s writing is complex to the point of obscurantism, and Bauman is no stranger to ‘thick description’. Of the three, Giddens’ work is probably the most accessible, although this might have more to do with good editing and academic English’s predilection for short sentences, than with the simplicity of ideas themselves. Either way, it could be argued that reading their work requires a relatively advanced understanding of the core concepts of social theory and philosophy, and the patience to plough through at times arcane language – all at seemingly no or very little direct benefit to the audience.

I want to argue that the appeal of star academics has very little to do with their ideas or the ways in which they are framed, and more to do with the combination of charismatic authority they exude, and the feeling of belonging, or shared understanding, that the consumption of their ideas provides. Similarly to Weber’s priests and magicians, star academics offer a public performance of the transfiguration of abstract ideas into concrete diagnosis of social evils. They offer an interpretation of the travails of late moderns – instability, job insecurity, surveillance, etc. – and, at the same time, the promise that there is something in the very act of intellectual reflection, or the work of social critique, that allows one to achieve a degree of distance from their immediate impact. What academic celebrities thus provide is – even if temporary – (re)‘enchantment’ of the world in which the production of knowledge, so long reserved for the small elite of the ‘initiated’, has become increasingly ‘profaned’, both through the massification of higher education and the requirement to make the stages of its production, as well as its outcomes, measurable and accountable to the public.

For the ‘common’ (read: Western, left-leaning, highly educated) person, the consumption of these celebrities’ ideas offers something akin to the combination of a music festival and a mindfulness retreat: opportunity to commune with the ‘like-minded’ and take home a piece of hope, if not for salvation, then at least for temporary exemption from the grind of neoliberal capitalism. Reflection is, after all, as Marx taught us, the privilege of the leisurely; engaging in collective acts of reflection thus equals belonging to (or at least affinity with) ‘the priesthood of the intellect’. As Bourdieu noted in his reading of Weber’s sociology of religion, laity expect of religion “not only justifications of their existence that can offer them deliverance from the existential anguish of contingency or abandonment, [but] justification of their existence as occupants of a particular position in the social structure”. Thus, Giddens’ or Žižek’s books become the structural or cultural equivalent of the Bible (or Qur’an, or any religious text): not many people know what is actually in them, even fewer can get the oblique references, but everyone will want one on the bookshelf – not necessarily for what they say, but because of what having them signifies.

This helps explain why people flock to hear Žižek or, for instance, Yannis Varoufakis, another leftist star intellectual. In public performances, their ideas are distilled to the point of simplicity, and conveniently latched onto something the public can relate to. At the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia in 2013, for instance, Žižek propounded the idea of the concept of ‘love’ as a political act. Nothing new, one would say – but who in the audience would not want to believe their crush has potential to turn into an act of political subversion? Therefore, these intellectuals’ utterances represent ‘speech acts’ in quite a literal sense of the term: not because they are truly (or consequentially) performative, but because they offer the public an illusion that listening (to them) and speaking (about their work) represents, in itself, a political act.

From this perspective, the mixture of admiration, envy and resentment with which these celebrities are treated in the academic establishment represents a reflection of their evangelical status. Those who admire them quarrel about the ‘correct’ interpretation of their works and vie for the status of the nominal successor, which would, of course, also feature ritualistic patricide – which may be the reason why, although surrounded by followers, so few academic celebrities actually elect one. Those who envy them monitor their rise to fame in hope of emulating it one day. Those who resent them, finally, tend to criticize their work for intellectual ‘baseness’, an argument that is in itself predicated on the distinction between academic (and thus ‘sacred’) and popular, ‘common’ knowledge.

Many are, of course, shocked when their idols turn out not to be ‘original’ thinkers channeling divine wisdom, but plagiarists or serial repeaters. Yet, there is very little to be surprised by; academic celebrities, after all, are creatures of flesh and blood. Discovering their humanity and thus ultimate fallibility – in other words, the fact that they cheat, copy, rely on unverified information, etc. – reminds us that, in the final instance, knowledge production is work like any other. In other words, it reminds us of our own mortality. And yet, acknowledging it may be the necessary step in dismantling the structures of rigid, masculine, God-like authority that still permeate the academia. In this regard, it makes sense to kill your idols.

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