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  • Mark 9:27 am on May 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , merit, success, ,   

    ‘Intelligence’ as an explanatory concept  

    I’m working on a paper with Tom Brock at the moment in which we’re trying to unpack the contemporary meaning that ‘intelligence’ holds in political and economic discourse. ‘Intelligence’ is something invoked in the same way that ‘merit’ and ‘will’ have been previously. For instance, see this extract from Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success pg 5:

    In 1914 preacher/ author William Woodbridge posed the question of the day: “What is it that the upper ten possesses that the under ten thousand does not possess?” His book, That Something, revolved around an encounter between a fictional beggar and a financier who gives the beggar his business card and says the beggar doesn’t need food but rather “that something” that all successful men have. Inspired, the young beggar discovers the value of “Faith, Confidence, Power, Ambition…” and, finally, the power of his own will, which is “the talisman of success.” It is the will of the soul, writes Woodbridge, that explains why a few men are destined to be carried “on our muscle” like men upon horses.

    What these concepts have in common is that they are explanations masquerading as descriptions. They impute characteristics to the successful which implicitly explain their success but in a vacuously circular way. They are overloaded because they reduce a complex interplay of factors to a singular characteristic that explains someone’s ‘success’: in doing so they become cultural placeholders that stitch together an ultimately untenable individualistic world view. These explanations of success can only work by imbuing quasi-magical capacities, something which we are arguing can be seen in their representation on film and TV. 

    As the author above notes, these overloaded concepts often get invoked by elites to explain (and thus justify their status). From pg 5-6:

    While the masses sought to divine the secrets of success—willpower? personality? faith? confidence?—some at the top came to believe their success was either divinely distributed or a matter of superior morals. John D. Rockefeller claimed, “God gave me my money.” When J. P. Morgan was questioned about his empire, which was built in large measure through stock manipulation, he said its source was “character.”

     
    • TGJBrock 4:19 pm on May 28, 2016 Permalink

      After watching “Look Who’s Back”, I was thinking about Weber’s definition of ‘charisma’, which he links to discussions of authority and power:

      “[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

      Weber argues that charismatic authority lasts because the leader is seen as infallible and any action against them would be perceived as a crime against the state. This help these leaders to develop a ‘cult of personality’, which is not something they necessarily intended. Their power becomes legitimised on the basis of these exceptional qualities, which further inspires loyalty and obedience from followers. What is unshakable about any given charismatic leader is their belief in the goal(s) that they have set. Should this be faulted, and support will quickly fade.

      What I think is missing from this is what you indicate above. That structural advantages are often unacknowledged or written off as chance, rather than providing the resources needed to secure such platforms, and thereby voice one’s beliefs. I once interviewed the founder of one of the most successful gaming networks on YouTube – the YOGCAST. He was telling me how his success was down to the ‘character’ of him and his co-stars. This was despite the huge financial support that he secured early on, which helped him turn help turn a tiny radio show into a regularly scheduled Internet programme. Reminds me of what R.K. Merton calls The Matthew Effect: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have adebdance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. The rich get rich and the poor get poorer when the model of success is built around early intervention and subsequent attempts to monopolise the market.

    • Mark 3:21 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink

      I think the first section of the paper is basically sketched out 🙂

  • Mark 9:41 am on October 29, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , eugenics, , merit, ,   

    the eugenecist temptation for digital elites  

    It’s perhaps slightly unfair to use the term ‘eugenecist’ in relation to these remarks. But I’m interested in how the the notion of being ‘smart’ is constructed amongst digital elites, as well as how this might develop into  something much nastier as the broader political climate changes. From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 357:

    Musk has talked about having more kids, and it’s on this subject that he delivers some controversial philosophizing vis- à- vis the creator of Beavis and Butt- head. “There’s this point that Mike Judge makes in Idiocracy , which is like smart people, you know, should at least sustain their numbers,” Musk said. “Like, if it’s a negative Darwinian vector, then obviously that’s not a good thing. It should be at least neutral. But if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad, too. I mean, Europe, Japan, Russia, China are all headed for demographic implosion. And the fact of the matter is that basically the wealthier— basically wealth, education, and being secular are all indicative of low birth rate. They all correlate with low birth rate. I’m not saying like only smart people should have kids. I’m just saying that smart people should have kids as well. They should at least maintain— at least be a replacement rate. And the fact of the matter is that I notice that a lot of really smart women have zero or one kid. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s probably not good.’”

    This builds upon what I’ve argued is a fetishisation of intelligence within the broader culture. See here for the original clips.

    An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

    Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

    A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

    Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

    Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

    I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

    These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

    And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

    The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

    What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

    Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.

     
  • Mark 9:59 pm on September 4, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , dreams, , merit, , ,   

    the horatio alger myth 

    This fascinating feature of American cultural history was entirely unknown to me, until The New Prophets of Capital, loc 1051. I wonder how Alger would have faired in an environment saturated by social media?

    Horatio Alger, a sensitive Harvard alum, was horrified by the ills of industrial capitalism in New York City during the late nineteenth century. In response, he wrote a hundred inspirational novels about young men who escaped poverty and achieved success, idealizing a time when “honesty, thrift, self- reliance, industry, a cheerful whistle, and an open, manly face” were all it took to achieve the American Dream. The Alger stories had fallen out of favor by the turn of the century, not because they sported titles like Ragged Dick , but because critics like H.L. Mencken thought that Alger was deluded about what it takes to succeed in America. Mark Twain was also not a fan. He wrote an Alger parody about a “good little boy” named Jacob Blivens whose piousness couldn’t save him from being turned into a “human nitro- glycerin rocket,” body parts hurled across four townships. “You never saw a boy scattered so.”

     
  • Mark 8:52 am on February 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: hannibal, , jed bartlett, merit, , , sherlock, talent, , west wing   

    The Fetishisation of Intelligence Under Neoliberalism 

    An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the  superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

    Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

    A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

    Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

    Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

    I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

    These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

    And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

    The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

    What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

    Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.

     
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