Wednesday, January 3, 2018

If You Don't Know, I'm Certainly Not Going to Tell You!

Two passages from Morality and Expediency: The Folklore of Academic Politics (Blackwell, 1977) by the anthropologist F. G. Bailey.  I've read, enjoyed, and learned from Bailey's work before, but I picked up this particular book because I've found myself reading some famous satirical works on academia lately, such as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Robert Grudin's Book, and Frederick C. Crews's The Pooh PerplexMorality and Expediency is based on the English academic Bailey's fieldwork in some American universities, and I felt sure he'd have some useful things to say.  He did, though for me their usefulness goes beyond the Ivory Tower.

The contempt in which a 'popularizer' is held, particularly when he is himself a member of the academic community, comes about for several reasons.  Firstly, he is using the discoveries of other people to make money or reputation for himself: the fact that special talents are needed to market the stuff (so that in fact he does add something), is usually ignored.  Secondly, in the process of popularizing he is likely to dilute and distort: the fact that dilution may be a necessary price for the dissemination of knowledge is ignored. Thirdly, at the back of all this, lies a dominating myth among academics about their own superiority.  Knowledge, for whatever reason accessibly only to the few, is by that very fact superior to knowledge accessible to anyone.  It is all strangely economic: knowledge is valuable in proportion to its scarcity.
In fact this argument is never taken to its logical conclusion, at least by scholars: for the conclusion must be that any sharing of knowledge dilutes it.  But that will not do, since, by definition, knowledge (as distinct from mystical experience or revelation) exists only to the extent that it is disseminated, that is, shared with other people [21].
I don't think I agree with the line Bailey draws here between "knowledge" and "mystical experience or revelation," because revelation, at least, tends to be shared and disseminated, though with the same ambivalence about the process.  On the one hand, the revelation will be polluted by the unclean ears of the many, so must be reserved for the few who have shown themselves worthy; hence the commands in books of revelation to seal up the material until the time is fulfilled, or Jesus' secrecy about his status, to the point of teaching in parables in order to keep "those outside" from understanding and being saved (Mark 4:10-12). On the other hand, the revelation often includes a command to spread the word like seed cast by a sower (also Mark 4), and in the New Testament book of Revelation, the order not to seal the book, for time is near (Revelation 22:10).

That popularizers are also distrusted, even despised, by scientists no less than other academics, is among other things a sign of the common origins of science, religion, and magic.  On one hand, the rabble are despised for not being willing (or able, depending on the presuppositions of the elitist) to learn the Truth; on the other hand, to attempt to teach them, to let knowledge out of its pen to wander freely in the world, is inevitably to dilute and distort the Truth that only the elect can know.

But this ambivalence also turns up in the arts.  I've mentioned before the composer who despised laypeople for loving the wrong music for the wrong reasons, and speculated that those who make art will inevitably understand it differently than those who consume it.  I first began thinking seriously about this problem, though, when Nirvana's Nevermind became a platinum-selling hit in the early 1990s and I saw people fuming about it online.  They'd been fans before the band signed with a major label, when they could think of Nirvana as esoteric knowledge reserved for the wise few, and they were furious that the masses were going to pollute Art once again with their unclean ears.  I realized that those who see themselves as elites may lament the fact that Artists are despised and rejected (again the language comes from biblical precedents) by the ignorant rabble, but if the rabble suddenly embrace an Artist's work it isn't because their taste has miraculously improved but because the Artist has sold out, gone over to the Dark Side, prostituted himself.  (Myself, I never could hear much difference between Nevermind and Nirvana's earlier work, but then I too am a man of unclean ears and lips, though I have heard the word of Kurt.)

And yet I don't think that the people who were so upset by Nirvana's sudden popularity thought of themselves as elitists; they probably saw themselves as marginalized outsiders, anarchists, the common people trampled on by big business, and they'd thought Cobain and the guys were just guys like them.  The same would be true of the early Christians.  Jesus, after all, had taught that only a few would pass through the narrow gate that leads to salvation, so it couldn't have been only the rich (a small minority in any society) who were going to be damned.

There's a similar confusion among the right-wing Republican base of the Tea Party and of Donald Trump's presidency: on the one hand they are a pitiful minority persecuted by godless brown and black people, transgenders, and extreme liberal media; on the other, they are America, We the People, hear them roar, and the government should govern as they demand.  I also detect echoes of the ambivalence police (also a Trump constituency) have toward the public: on the one hand, a sentimental stance of service and protection; on the other, a paranoid sense that the public misunderstands them, won't support them, blames them first for everything that goes wrong.

Bailey goes on to discuss the conflicting attitudes academics have toward the outside world that supports them.  The University produces and stores Knowledge and Wisdom; it is utterly distinct from and must maintain a wall of separation between itself and the World (the religious precedent again) -- but therefore the public should feel honored to support it; on the other, the public are stupid and can never understand the Truth, so the wise elites of the University are entitled to extract "resources from the outside world without giving anything in return" (40).  These attitudes are also echoed in the arts and sciences.  They are somewhat caricatured, but like any caricature they are recognizable.

The arena [as opposed to the 'elite'] committee tends towards the public model.  The members of the committee are representative of bodies outside, to which they are accountable and to which they must report back, and the awareness of this potential audience will push members towards posturing and the language of principle and policy, and away from a gossip-like exchange about persons.  Furthermore, since altercation has to be contained if anything is to be done, there may be a tendency to develop rules of etiquette, and with that would appear the suspicion that the committee's work is becoming ritual and ceremonial, leaving the real decisions to be taken elsewhere.  In practice, this descent and fall is usually arrested, because the contestants begin to see the necessity for collusion and for concealing from their followers some of the deals they make with the opposition.  The Planning Sub-committee is an example: the crude antagonisms of its earlier days have been softened a little by increased formality but more by a growing camaraderie and spirit of give-and-take among the members [72].
This made me think of government, especially above the local level.  It's a description of an arena committee like the US Congress, for example, no less than of a university faculty Senate.  The public face of the legislature allows for a lot of grandstanding and posturing, and much work must (therefore?) be done out of the public view.  Members of Congress are representative not only of the voters but of non-voters, and of their donors.  I've often noticed that many citizens talk, at least, as though they believe that their legislators should know what they want or need without being told, and should produce laws cut to order when just one citizen (themselves, of course) confronts them and tells them what he or she wants.  This is impossible even in smaller bodies, like a university senate, because as Bailey says, there is no objectively correct way to divide up limited resources: everybody thinks their wishes and interests are most important and should get attention.  So,
in those small committees which are designed to take or recommend action, just because they are nearer to reality than the larger assemblies, the unpncipled business of compromise behind the scenes -- one of the main indicators of the community [as opposed to the organizational] style -- takes place.  This in turn reinforces the need for secrecy, because there are no public principles -- other than 'reasonableness, which means refusal to stand on principle -- by which they decisions can be defended [66].
I also found useful the distinction Bailey draws between "organizations," based on principles and accountability, and "communities," based on interpersonal relationships, where to "ask for accountability is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a wicked perversion  of the true nature of the institution" (12).  Of course every institution is at the same time a community and an organization, and while it must be decided which mode is proper for dealing with a problem, there is no objective (or public) way to decide it.  Reading a liberal Democrat's account of her interaction with Elizabeth Warren through these filters is revealing: on the one hand, the writer sees herself as a member of a community shared with Warren, whom she evaluates as a person, but also as a member of an organization unfortunately dragged down by the proles, because "we [the wise elites, the Party insiders] are always talking policy but the voters are always choosing on personality."  As I've argued, it isn't true that the voters don't care about policy, and certainly this writer chose on personality; some mixture of the two will probably be present in every individual.

Reading Morality and Expediency, then, reminds me how much I need to learn about real-world politics.  It also fits with what I've been learning about the impossibility of distinguishing science from religion, or the arts from politics, or any number of human institutions from each other: what I, and others, tend to see as specific traits of each turn up in all the others.