The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: October, 2017

Experts and Intellectuals: A Monologue on Knowledge

The pursuit of knowledge is an ancient activity. It can be carried out in more ways than one. In contemporary Western societies, knowledge is the province of the expert. The expert – that most contemporary of personages – is distinguished by his or her specificity: one is not an expert in a general sense; one is an expert in some field or on some topic. To achieve expert status, one has to concentrate one’s intellectual faculties very narrowly indeed. This form of epistemology is reflected in the structure of academia, wherein the discipline is paramount: one is expected to be an expert in a particular discipline, and disciplines are defined increasingly narrowly. The common sense of the contemporary academy is that as the world becomes more complicated the useful intelligence is that which can  specialize the most minutely.

This is increasingly apparent in the financial sector. Managing one’s own financial resources has now become such a gargantuanly complicated task that one can’t do it alone. A lifetime of training is needed to understand an average person’s financial affairs. Note this ad from Irish bank EBS, who brand themselves “the mortgage masters” and declare: “Some jobs need a master, with the perfect combination of dedication, focus and expertise … You need someone who can draw on decades of know-how… Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one … For a job as important as your mortgage, that’s EBS.”


The ideology of the expert is being offered up here, with an emphasis on the impossibility of the subject being entirely beyond the ordinary individual. What is the difficulty with this? My difficulty is that we are not dealing with a pre-given complexity which needs a sophisticated intelligence to understand it; we are dealing with a constructed complexity (the financial system) whose existence provides financial benefit to the very people who create and uphold it. Certainly, an individual’s finances can be as complicated as you like. The question that the businessperson is unlikely to ask, but that the intellectual should, is: should they be? Or again, need they be? Is it not, rather, the ultimate in alienation that we cannot understand our own financial status and judge our own best interests?


So academics and intellectuals more generally should be wary of the role of expert, and his/her self-serving need to increase the intellectual sophistication of his/her position. Another way is possible, and has a long history. Imagine a world wherein knowledge was gained not by a narrowing of the intellectual vision, but a widening thereof. Reading recently Paul Feyerabend’s Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991), I was introduced to an 18th-century German philosopher and (for want of a better term to describe his all-encompassing intellectual interests) man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who Feyerabend’s dialogist holds up as the paradigm of the intellectual:

I admire Lessing for his independence, for his willingness to change his mind. I admire him even for his honesty for he is one of those very rare people who can be honest and humorous at the same time, who use their honesty as a guide for their own private lives, not as a club or beating people into submission, not as a showpiece for pleasing the galleries. […] I admire him because he was a thinker without a doctrine and a scholar without a school – every problem, every phenomenon he approached was for him a unique situation that had to be explained and illuminated in a unique way. I admire him because he was not satisfied with sham clarity but realized that understanding is often achieved through an obscuring of things, through a process in which “what seemed to be seen clearly is lost in an uncertain distance.” (123)

For Lessing to approach each phenomenon as a unique situation he had to be free of disciplinary constraints, to be a “scholar without a school”. Still more counterintuitively for a contemporary academic intelligence, he had not to clarify, but rather to show that that which appeared clear was not really so. In effect, this is closer to the defamiliarization technique seen by Shklovsky as being central to the artist’s mission.  So the intellectual had much of the artist about him, and less of the disciplinary intelligence. The task is to return the techniques of the artist and of Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing to the data-driven and micro-disciplinary intellectual landscape we inhabit.



Adorno, Fascism and Phoniness

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) is a philosopher with whose work I have had only a casual acquaintance. He is very much part of the continental school, influenced by mainland European philosophers and having an influence among later members of the same group. But continental philosophy has become more and more the dominant philosophy in academia in humanities departments in the English-speaking world, too, so Adorno crops up everywhere.

The book I have been looking into is The Culture Industry (Routledge, 1991/2015), which I picked up for next to nothing in a charity shop. This book turns out to be a collection of more-or-less discrete essays, rather than a unified work. Among the blurb quotes are one from Alain de Botton describing this book as “very funny”. The idea of Adorno being funny is a new one to me, as I had always thought of him as being relentlessly serious and somewhat grim in his analysis of the human condition (he was half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, so such pessimism was to be expected). On reading the essay on “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” in Culture Industry, I am nowhere nearer detecting the humour in Adorno’s work.

But the essay does tackle one of Adorno’s big themes, fascism, and connect it to one of continental philosophy’s major influences, Sigmund Freud. The central point about fascism to Adorno is that it is irrational:

The overwhelming majority of all agitators’ statements are directed ad hominem. They are obviously based on psychologocial calculatiosn rather than on the intention to gain followers through the rational statement of rational gain. (132)

This is one of the keynotes of the essay. Adorno does not defend this stance in any detail. Within a contemporary context, it is still usual to see fascism and other far-right movements as being irrational. Reading Adorno and reflecting on this situation in general, I wonder if it needs some critical reflection. Nazism certainly used scientific rationalism, such as with regard to eugenics.

Of course, Adorno’s contention that fascism operates by way of creating a libidinal bond and offering “the actual or vicarious pleasure individuals obtain from surrendering to a mass” (136) also has merit, but both libidinal satisfaction and rational justification may be used together, and a political doctrine that only utilized one without the other is unlikely to have much success. Of course, to acknowledge this makes the whole thing a little messy and Adorno is instead intent on constructing a much neater theoretical position:

[O]ne cannot help feeling that propaganda material of the fascist brand forms a structural unit with a total common conception, be it conscious or preconscious, which determines every word that is said. (133)

Thus Adorno’s strict theory of the nature of fascism is based, first of all, on a feeling. Once this feeling is introduced and arbitrarily adopted as the base of his theory, Adorno goes on to assume that fascist propaganda is a structural unit with a single determining underlying conception.

Interesting as some of Adorno’s subsequent musings are, this opening maneouvre is hard to overcome, for me. It is a characteristic of continental philosophy to make a boldly theoretical statement, one which then functions to allow it to make a reductive analysis of the relevant phenomenon. Here, it is the presumption of irrationality, while allows Adorno to simply ignore any rational elements in fascism. Nor does he admit that he’s doing this: he doesn’t even say the libidinal element is the dominant one, but that it is the only one. Every phenomenon must have a single identifiable cause is the curious underlying assumption of Adorno’s position.

This is not to say that Adorno’s analysis of the psychology of fascism is irrelevant, just that it cannot be as relevant as Adorno thinks it is, because there are other factors that need to be examined.

In the final part of the essay, Adorno gets on to some general historical factors. Why have Western societies become more open to fascistic discourse? Here his reading of Marx and alienation comes in. Reflecting on the human condition in 20th-century Western societies, Adorno writes:

In a throughly reified society, in which there are virtually no direct relationships between men, and in which each person has been reduced to a social atom, to a mere function of collectivity, the psychological processes, though they still persist in each individual, have ceased to appear as the determining forces of the social process. Thus, the psychology of the individual has lost what Hegel would have called substance. (152)

The impoverished 20th-century subject, then, all too readily submits him or herself in the fascistic mass. Finally, Adorno diagnoses a certain “phoniness” in the whole set-up:

The category of “phoniness” applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people believe in the depths of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. (152)

“Phoniness” is an interesting concept in that it anticipates Žižek (who often cites Adorno) on cynical ideology, which he sees as belonging to all modern politics, left and right. Žižek goes much further with this idea than Adorno, and it provides some of his most interesting passages. As far as Adorno is concerned, the introduction of “phoniness” is unsatisfying and reads as something of an afterthought. How, one is left asking, can a “post-psychological” subject be phony, any more than he/she can be sincere?

Of course, maybe Adorno has developed all this more satisfactorily elsewhere. It is the nature of the great (or at least academically fashionable) thinkers that they do not yield their secrets to the casual reader. Have they not an entire discursive apparatus to sustain? And with clarity and straightforwardness such an apparatus cannot perpetuate itself. Instead, Adornian theoretical overreach, the “will to a system“, logical leaps – from these we build the material of endless debate for the academic industry to rumble endlessly on in imperfect circles.

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