This observation from loc 785 of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan caught my eye. His concern is with the intellectual implications of a generation’s dominance within critical thought:

The new critical theories have not been developed by ‘new’ theorists, if by that is meant biologically young intellectuals. There are, of course, young authors producing innovative critical thinking today, but the critical thinkers recognized in the public sphere are in most cases over 60 years of age and often over 70. The implications of this are not insignificant. However ‘contemporary’, these authors’ analyses are mainly the fruit of political experiences belonging to a previous political cycle –that of the 1960s and 70s.

But what about these young authors and their innovative critical thinking? How is its reception influenced by the prominence of these towering figures in their 60s and 70s? It seems obvious to me there are Matthew effects at work here, with it being easier for the already visible to accumulate visibility for their work. Furthermore, the crisis in monographs means that established intellectual brands are immensely appealing to publishers.

It would be a crass overstatement to accuse ageing critical theorists of squeezing out the younger generation through their frantic rate of publication, something which younger scholars are unable to match for all sorts of reasons. But rejecting this argument as a form of intellectual populism shouldn’t lead us to retreat from the underlying observation. There is a dynamic here which is of great significance for the character and influence of critical thought today.

What is it like to be an celebrity intellectual? I thought this was an admirably honest answer by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of how fame has changed his life. It seems obvious he would be far from alone in this experience, suggesting we could reflect on it as symptomatic of knowledge production by celebrity intellectuals rather than solely a biographical fact about an individual author. It is an important feature of knowledge production that acquiring a large audience often involves losing time to undertake research:

Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor of history specialising in medieval history and my audience was about five people around the world who read my articles. So it’s quite shocking to be now in a position that I write something and there is a potential of millions of people will read it. Overall I’m happy with what’s happened. You don’t want to just speak up, you also want to be heard. It’s a privilege that I now have such an audience.

I found it striking when reading Harari’s work how much of it depended on existing popular(ish) summaries of research combined with an esoteric selection of direct citations to the research literatures he is a specialist in. Observing this isn’t a critique of Harari, as much as an attempt to underscore how this citational thinness is necessary if you intend to write at this level of generality. How on earth could you write avowedly comprehensive books “about the long-term past of humankind and the long-term future” without engaging with existing literature in this way?

If your instinct is to encourage these broad conversations, as mine is, what matters is how these trade offs are negotiated and the implications this has for the work in question. It becomes more tricky when we consider how these broad treatments are better placed than specialised texts to capture the attention of a wide audience, with implications for how status is accrued by their authors. Those who do this well find themselves catapulted into a global strata of jet setting celebrity intellectuals with less time to spend on the inevitably thin research which went into addressing such vast topics in the first place. This might be mitigated by the availability of teams of research assistants to be accessed through your newfound wealth but they require intellectual leadership and doing this across such broad topics brings you right back to the original problem.

So what do you do? There’s an argument to be made for riffing impressionistically on what you read on your flights and see as you travel the globe, interspersing new material with established favourites. One variant on this is to produce your new material “in conversation with the public” with topics “decided largely by the kinds of questions I was asked in interviews and public appearances”. This ensures a dialogue with your fans but risks a filter bubble, as your interests are shaped by their interests which were in turn shaped by your original books. There are many other potential tactics but the underlying problem is an intractable one, as the intellectual thinness of the celebrity intellectual becomes ever more so as their fame accumulates, until their main function is to provide a target for a new generation of upwardly mobile global thinkers to practice supplanting their by now empirically anaemic elders.

In Solar, by Ian McEwan, we encounter the weary figure of Michael Beard, the nobel laureate and serial womaniser who has long lived off his early contribution to theoretical physics. By the time he approaches his 60s, he is a chaotic and directionless man, nonetheless ubiquitously affirmed within the academy and beyond:

He held an honorary university post in Geneva and did no teaching there, lent his name, his title, Professor Beard, Nobel laureate, to letterheads, to institutes, signed up to international ‘initiatives’, sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, spoke on the radio in layman’s terms about Einstein or photons or quantum mechanisms, helped out with grant applications, was a consultant editor on three scholarly journals, wrote peer reviews and references, took an interest in the gossip, the politics of science, the positioning, the special pleading, the terrifying nationalism, the tweaking of colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more practical accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite, appeared at giant conventions in the US – eleven thousand physicists in one place! – listened to post-docs explain their research, gave with minimal variation the same series of lectures on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation that had brought him his prize,awarded prizes and medals himself, accepted honorary degrees, and gave after-dinner speeches and eulogies for retiring or about-to-cremated colleagues. (pg. 14)

This is a man who enjoys celebrity, “in an inward, specialised world”, leaving him able to drift “from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives” (pg. 14). He remains blissfully ignorant of the post-docs who work with him, neither having the inclination nor the energy to learn to differentiate them. He reasons that it is “better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person” rather than “insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike” (pg. 20). It was only after half a dozen trips to his research centre that he realised that the same post-doc had acted as driver each time. As he awaits the end of his fifth marriage, he relies on the incoming mail to offer him escape from the peculiar turgidity that privilege has brought to his life:

After morosely clinging to stupid hopes, he began to watch the post and emails for the invitation that would take him far away from Belsize Park and shake some independent life into his sorry frame. About half a dozen a week arrived throughout the year, but so far nothing had interested him among the inducements to give lectures on the shore of a plutocratic north-Italian lake, or in an unexciting German schloss, and he felt too weak and raw to discuss the Conflation before one more colleague-crowded conference in New Delhi or Los Angeles. He had no idea what he wanted, but he thought he would know it when he saw it. (pg. 22-23).

He often felt he had “coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be” (pg. 50). Ironically, it was this very talent and devotion which led him to become the middle man plagued by “a certain mental deficiency, an emptiness, a restless boredom” that could only be obscured “by the daily round or sleep” (pg. 49). His intellectual engagement now more often entailed flipping through the Scientific American, perpetually distracted by his “lifetime’s habit” of being “inconveniently watchful for his own name” (pg. 49).

In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, he makes a number of observations about the importance of brand-name writers which could easily be applied to the growth of academic celebrities within scholarly publishing. From pg 212-214

Brand-name authors are important for two reasons: first, their sales are predictable, and second, they are repeaters. Their sales are predictable because they have readerships that are loyal to them. Readers become ‘fans’ of a particular writer, or of a series of books by a particular writer, and they want to read more. The publisher can therefore count on a market that is to some extent captive, and the sales of the author’s previous books become a good guide to the sales of the author’s next book. If the author’s career is developing satisfactorily, the publisher can count on cumulative growth: each new book will sell more than the previous one, and the overall trajectory will be a steadily climbing curve. In a world where so much frontlist publishing is a crapshoot, predictability of this kind is a gift.

Brand-name authors are also repeaters. They write a book a year, or maybe a book every two years. This means that the publisher with a number of repeaters can plan their future programme with much more accuracy and reliability than a publisher who is relying on the normal hit-and-miss business of frontlist trade publishing. They know when each of their repeaters will deliver and they can plan their publishing strategies for each author and each book in order to maximize their sales potential –each year a new hardcover, which is subsequently relaunched as a trade or mass-market paperback, etc. The regular, predictable output of repeaters enables the publisher to build the author’s brand over time, feeding new books into the marketplace at regular intervals to maintain the interest and loyalty of existing fans and to recruit new readers. It also enables the publisher to build the backlist, since the better known the author is, the more valuable his or her backlist will tend to be, as new and existing fans turn to earlier books in order to sate their appetite for their favoured author’s work. So the publisher with brand-name authors wins on both fronts: predictable frontlist hits that can be turned into staple backlist titles.

I’m really pleased with this special feature I just finished for The Sociological Review’s website:

I’ll be following up with a podcast with Peter Walsh next month.

Taking the lead from Peter Walsh’s laudible work on academic celebrity, here’s some lessons from the career of Tony Giddens which I inferred from this excellent review article Peter pointed me towards, coupled with my own reading of Giddens, who was the major protagonist for my PhD:

  • Choose your targets well. Take early aim at the established masters. Draw upon the established canon but re-articulate it in a idiosyncratic way.
  • Demonstrate a mastery of the classics that is cashed out in terms of their translation into contemporary concerns.
  • Tie your interests, however general they may be, into the most pressing topics of the day.
  • Cultivate both your critics and yours fans: engage often and generously.
  • Publish lots, ideally in a way that combines repetition with reliable progress into new intellectual domains.
  • Write texts books. Seriously.
  • Own the company that publishes your books. Or, if you can’t, at least exercise substantial influence over the channels through which you disseminate your work.
  • (Re)define the canon in a way easily taken up by others.
  • Edit the major journal(s) outside of your professional stronghold
  • Seek prestigious institutional positions and deploy them to maximal effect in disconnected arenas.

Interestingly, Clegg writes in 1992 that “few have sought to challenge with a competitive strategy based on equivalent market penetration”. But since then many have. Stiegler, Bauman and Zizek, to name but three, have all achieved a rate of publication far beyond that which led Clegg to be so fascinated with Giddens. However, at least the latter two have self-plagiarised extensively, perhaps pointing to Giddens as having pushed the productivity bar to the maximum extent possible before one is forced to start copying & pasting from one book to the next in order to keep the profitable publications flowing.