Why we should be shoppers – not disciples – in intellectual matters

However much it offends their narcissistic natures, most academics are disciples of one or maybe 2-3 masters. This applies across all the disciplines, though the nature of the discipleship differs among them. In the human sciences, which tend to collapse the distance between what one does and who one is, the sense of discipleship is a secular version of the classic religion model. Thus, a sense of imitation that begins as the sincerest form of flattery can end up as a priestly parody. In contrast, the natural sciences are more medieval, even today, as one still refers to lab ‘apprenticeship’, where the journeyman acquires a style of research which he or she then carries forward as an independent inquirer. However, nowadays one may need to apprentice in 2-3 or more labs, often turning the scientist into a ‘jack of all trades’ personality, with little commitment to any of them.

In either case, you can probably predict two-thirds of what academics think just by knowing who they studied – either in text on in person. The other third you can predict, once you know the conditions under which they’re deploying this legacy – or accumulated capital — to produce what is honorifically called ‘original work’. On this view, the difference between the greater and the lesser lights of a discipline is simply the number of masters that they dextrously handle: i.e. 2-3 versus just 1.

The luminary status of people like, say, Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler can be explained largely in this fashion, namely, their insights are reducible to the key people they read (very well, to be sure), with a small residue that reflects their own idiosyncratic reading habits. In turn, they attract a mass following because many people in their day will also have read – or at least would want to appear as having read — the same people, say, Marx, Freud, Lacan, Foucault, etc. Academics of this sort are easy to explain in terms of both their influences and the influence they exert over others. In 1998 Randall Collins published The Sociology of Philosophies, which very impressively applied this master-disciple thesis to understand ‘global intellectual change’, as he put it. It will be a very long time before the institutional history of intellectual life is bettered in all its details.

However, that’s not the only intellectual history that can be done, even from a sociological standpoint. In a book I published ten years ago, The Intellectual, I spoke of ‘one-stop shopping for the mind’ to characterize authors like Zizek and Butler. In contrast, the true intellectual is one of who is always shopping around for new ideas – but we need to take the idea of shopping literally. Shopping can’t be reduced to ‘following fashion’ because shopping implies thinking in terms of the personal suitability of a good on sale. Indeed, there is a tendency to underestimate the amount of kickback that shoppers give to fashion. You try on the garment or test-drive the car. If you purchase the good, you shape it at least as much as it shapes you.

In this respect, I’m more a shopper than a disciple in intellectual matters. Here it is important to distinguish the customer from the consumer of ideas. The distinction turns on two senses of ‘buying’. The customer ‘buys’ an idea simply in the sense of ‘purchase’, i.e. investing one’s own resources to acquire the idea. Thus, I buy a book, read it, but I may then ignore or inveigh against it – or, best of all, incorporate it in some creative way that makes the book’s ideas my own.  Thus, the intellectual customer may well operate against the grain of an idea’s producer by appropriating it in ways that the producer had not intended –or even would approve.

In contrast, the consumer falls more easily into the discipleship mode. That consumers are no more than disciples with a credit line has spurred businesses to increase and extend their brand recognition, such that once a branded product is purchased, its producers will try to ensure that the consumer will also buy many if not all of its affiliated lines, or ‘apps’. Apple and Microsoft are perhaps the most obvious cases in our own day. Moreover, because intellectual movements –no less than commercial enterprises or political parties — are ultimately fields of competing forces in search of coherent productivity, they necessarily have an idiosyncratic character. Thus, discipleship is easily spotted in, say, actor-network theory, given that as soon as Bruno Latour’s reading patterns shift to Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey and Walter Lippmann – perhaps in a pique of nostalgia for early 20C American thought – all of his disciples follow suit. This is not true shopping: It’s the sort of ‘one-stop shopping’ that comes from buying on subscription.

In British English, ‘shopping’ has an interesting meaning that accentuates the sense of ‘shopping’ I am advocating. If you ‘shop someone’, you are informing them to the authorities, presumably because you managed to gain their confidence, which led them to confess something criminal. This is akin to the profound Italian adage, traduttore tradittore, which I first learned in my student days when Jacques Derrida was fashionable: ‘To translate is to betray’. While it’s often presented as a counsel of despair against the prospect of adequate translation, the adage is best understood as a formula for turning a double negative into positive: You give the impression that your time spent on someone else’s thought is to follow it, but in practice your intention is to supersede it by creatively misunderstanding the thought.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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