The intellectual sclerosis of the superstar intellectual

There’s a fascinating and honest account in Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, reflecting on his own growing celebrity and the lethal challenges which have come with it. This is something I’ve often wondered about, particularly in relation to how widely one reads and the circle of people one engages with. From pg 247:

Furthermore, there have been times when my own critical faculties have been blunted a bit. I still critique other foreign affairs pundits, but perhaps not quite as much as before. This might be due to my growing appreciation for how hard it is to craft interesting, original arguments on a regular basis. But it might be due to a simple human failing; it is harder to publicly criticize writers whom one knows. 50 And the more successful one is as an intellectual, the more people one meets. As my career has progressed, I have experienced the benefits of greater intellectual success, and the effects frankly scare the hell out of me. My intellectual style has evolved, and not always in a good way. With success has come confidence, and a large dollop of arrogance. I have said “yes” to writing assignments that, in retrospect, I should have declined because I lacked the time or expertise to do them justice. As I write and speak more, I read less. It has become more difficult to replenish my intellectual capital beyond listening to others speak at conferences. The more international business class flights I take, the more impatient I become with quotidian responsibilities on the ground. As a graduate student, I would get irked when I contacted a senior scholar and failed to get a response. Now I am that senior scholar.

Earlier in the book he considers how scholars might circumvent these challenges, through teams of assistants, as well as how this might contribute to their eventual downfall. The detail which this leaves us pondering about those who are in a meaningful sense celebrities can leave this analysis feeling lurid. But I think it’s a crucial if we want to understand the contemporary reality of knowledge production. It is a crucial mechanism through which Matthew effects occur, as the already prestigious enjoy seemingly countless opportunities to accumulate yet further prestige, while also gaining access to the resources necessary to do this. As he observes on pg 184 these intellectual elites “garner an outsized fraction of opportunities in which superstars are asked to speak and write a lot more than anyone else”. He is surely correct that this creates a pressure to accept but I suspect refusals only have consequences for their status in the case of the most prestigious events, leaving the tendency to overstretch he identifies being inflected through the top rung of the ideas industry. This matters because refusal surely has a relationship to one’s academic prestige, even if it as a complex one. Would the speaker who accepts any invitation be perceived as a member of the intellectual elite even if they regarded themselves as one?

However what’s more interesting is how the intellectual elite respond to their outsized share of opportunities to accumulate further intellectual status. If you are constantly bombarded with invitations to right and speak then how do you handle them? Even assuming many are turned down, it entails a time pressure as what are traditionally seen as dissemination activities take over ever increasing swathes of working life. If much of your life is spent disseminating your analysis them how do you develop this and ensure it stays current? One possibility is to simply pretend that nothing has changed, producing work in the familiar way without recognition of the fundamental change in the conditions of that work, as well as the implications of these changes for its quality:

If the intellectual continues past practices, then he or she will inevitably become overworked from mounting obligations. In this situation, the superstar continues to write and research everything as if nothing has changed. The increased demand, however, can cause the intellectual to self-plagiarize or slack off as a survival tactic. Ferguson has admitted to this in interviews, telling the Washington Monthly that his books on empire could be described as “edutainment at best.” He told me, “I think overstretch is good.”

For many people the overstretch will feel obviously unsustainable though, creating a pressure to do things differently at precisely the time when the options available seem wider than ever. Drezner offers a powerful description on pg 186 of the peculiarly hierarchical form of collaboration this is likely to give rise to, as well as citing examples of superstar intellectuals and the teams they have working for them:

The other outcome is that a solitary intellectual becomes a brand manager with subordinates. To be sure, professors, think tank fellows, and management consultants frequently rely on research assistants. Nevertheless, a brand-name intellectual can require a staff—and most people who are good at being intellectuals are lousy at managing subordinates. It becomes all too easy for a superstar to outsource research to assistants. To run his show and to write his column, for example, Zakaria has a staff of eight people—and he takes great pride in doing most of the research for his column himself. 53 Ferguson hired a full-time researcher, as well as a “cottage industry” of bright undergraduates, to assist him with his research. Comparable superstars can choose to delegate research and writing tasks to coauthors or research assistants.

However this merely postpones the problem for these teams need management and the research assistants need direction. He offers a compelling account of how these managerial challenges are likely to lead to further overstretch, with standards slipping as research becomes an endeavour split between subordinates liable to be managed at a distance. The risks involved in this might be the eventual reason or the downfall of the intellectual, as their celebrity brand collapsed into scandal. As goes on to describe it on pg 186:

Outsourcing research and writing tasks is a natural shortcut for intellectual superstars to meet the Ideas Industry’s demands. But such delegation increases the probability of errors seeping into published work. If small shortcuts or errors are not caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. It is rare for a public intellectual or a thought leader to willfully commit plagiarism or fraud. But there have been enough intellectual scandals in this century for a familiar narrative to emerge: a confusion of notes, or a miscommunication between assistants and writers. 54 Corners are not cut, but perhaps they are rounded.

For a thought-leader this might prove unproblematic, as someone like Ferguson has found a freedom in his move from the academic world to think tanks, embracing polemic in a way that allows him to bluster through the exposure of mistakes and fallacies. Whereas for intellectuals it is liable to prove more costly, as the exposure of failings which have crept in as a consequence of the intensity of work which their status now demands can pose an existential threat to that very status, with the worst possibility in the world being that people would no longer take them seriously.

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