The Fetishisation of Intelligence Under Neoliberalism

An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the  superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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3 replies »

  1. Thanks for drawing my attention to this!
    In a paper I’m half working on, I came to a very similar conclusion.
    While capitalism is quite comfortable with worker/owner inequality, it seems to feel the need to defend inequality within the bourgeoisie.
    The protestant work ethic, eugenics and IQ were all invented as ways to explain inequality of outcome in capitalism.

  2. Good post. In his book “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes wrestles with a similar topic; worth a read.

  3. I don’t think an interest in intelligence can be so neatly layered to that pop term neoliberalism. People really hate sharp autodidacts from working-class backgrounds, for example, and there’s a secret envy directed against them. Look at how they often fare in higher education. Or highly intelligent women, or super clever foreigners. Class, gender and race trumps everything in the UK (impoverished people that we are), though it’s true the US is more ideologically meritocratic (and always has been, predating ‘neoliberalism’).

    Incidentally, the point about Jed Bartlett was his grasp of detail, something often lacking in US politics. The show was about the triumph of rationality and intelligence over ideology. Guess that would piss some people off….

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