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  • Mark 9:13 am on November 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , meritocracy, ,   

    Donald Trump’s Words of Power 

    In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

    The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

    What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

    This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

    The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

    The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

    We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

    Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

    The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

    The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

    However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

    Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

    Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

     
    • jeff vass 10:43 am on November 10, 2016 Permalink

      Thanks for the first intelligent thing I’ve read on this phenomenon. If I’ve understood what you’ve said Mark then I very much agree with what you’ve written. What you refer to as the ‘factors’ in the Trump-voting group do need investigating in ethnographic detail (I look forward to the Winlow et al book on the UK situation). Indeed the vitriolic response of the liberal elite to these ‘groups’, in my view, is part of the mechanism that inhibits any detailed look for those ‘factors’ . Even among sociologists I find that the vitriol trumps (if you’ll pardon me) the desire to examine the details for fear, perhaps, of finding unpalatable variation. In March The Atlantic published an analysis, based on several quantitative studies, which already shows factor variance in Trump support. They knew then it wasn’t just ‘white working class’ as just by introducing another factor (e.g. WWC who attended church once weekly) were not in the Trump voting group. So, indeed, yes they concluded that the quantitative analysis points to those ‘feeling abandoned’ by the political elite, but more interestingly they say ‘the voiceless’. I agree with you that ‘the abandoned’ is itself ethnographically inadequate at the level of descriptive sociology, but I think that ‘the voiceless’ indicates a different kind of incipient unity politically.

      Nevertheless to your major point about words of power, indeed incipient unities can be ‘interpellated’ by words of power, though I think that obscures the conative struggles of those looking to voice as yet inchoate feelings. In Charles Taylor’s later work he gave more room to the idea of poetry in language, and of course poetry precisely consists in words of power for the same reasons you give ie it deals with the inchoate by bringing feelings into specified form through the affordances of an audience. How odd that a poetic act should be so close to the problem of evil. Indeed, in English law another meaning of inchoate is incitement or conspiracy to criminal activity!

    • Mark 4:40 pm on November 17, 2016 Permalink

      I really like this idea: have you read Nick Couldry’s book on Voice? I’m reading what you’re saying through his account and it works really well.

  • Mark 11:18 am on March 17, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , market liberalism, meritocracy,   

    Market liberalism and the foreclosure of politics 

    I just came across a stunning quote by Larry Summers, economic and policy doyen of the Democratic establishment, reflecting on the rise of inequality in America. It’s from The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 363:

    “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.” 

    I’ve rarely seen such a pure expression of the post-democratic tendency within market liberalism: a project to overcome the distorting constraints of social democracy and ‘treat people how they’re supposed to be treated’.

    There’s a fascinating insight a few pages later from Alan Krueger, a friend and former graduate student of Summers, concerning the genesis of this ethos of ‘truthfulness’ through markets. From pg 368:

    “Larry felt that it didn’t make sense that while he was being paid well by Harvard, some other professors were being paid in his ballpark. After all, he was Larry Summers, and who the hell were the rest of them? He began to study structures, like unions, that compressed wage distinctions in ways that went against the market. Of course, some of those compressions are meant to soften the blow of such distinctions, mindful of a complex array of factors, many uneconomic, that go into who gets paid what. But that’s part of the point. Larry believes that the goal is to make everything more brutally ‘truthful’—in terms of the market being basically right in how it values people and trying to make it more so—and that process shouldn’t be tampered with unless there is overwhelming, indisputable evidence that the market is not working. After a few decades, Larry has gotten very good at undercutting arguments for any government intervention into free markets. “If you’re the policymaker, you need to show overwhelming evidence that a market is not functioning, in a profound and disastrous way, to merit an intervention. The default is to go back to the first principle, of market efficiency, and to let matters mostly continue as they’ve been.”

     
  • Mark 1:23 pm on March 5, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , meritocracy, , , , ,   

    The Politics of an Uncertain Future 

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    The rise of the robots is a recurrent theme of popular culture. Robots are often seen as a threat, heralding the prospect of human beings being replaced by their creations, perhaps to the extent of being deemed useless by them and attacked. Underlying this fear is the reality of automation: technology being more adept at particular tasks and so replacing human beings for this purpose. But automation isn’t new. All manner of what we now consider mundane automated tasks were once undertaken by hand, representing whole categories of employment which have now wholly or largely vanished. For instance our phone system no longer relies on switchboard operators and withdrawal of money no longer necessitates interaction with a bank clerk. But technological change has often produced new jobs to replace those that have been lost. Human beings are adaptable. As a 1965 NASA report put it, “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour”. More often than not, technology has been used alongside human beings to improve their productivity, sometimes as a skilled tool and sometimes as a tool for deskilling, taking a skilled task and breaking it into component elements. In fact, some might argue that the history of scientific management, analysing and dictating workflows to improve economic efficiency, somewhat resembles an attempt to turn human beings into machines: replacing their skilled and situational responses with a pattern imposed by outside experts.

    But many are arguing that we are on the cusp of a turning point in automation. This is not a matter of hyper-intelligent robots replicating human capacities but rather of quite specific technological advances facilitating entirely new kinds of automation: what Jerry Kaplan describes as synthetic intellects and forged labourers. The first relies on advances in machine learning and cloud computing to process unprecedented quantities of data at speed, facilitating the rapid development of accumulated expertise in a particular sphere without strictly speaking ‘understanding’ it: the machine can learn from a much greater amount of data than was previously the case and the computational challenge involved in doing so can be distributed through the cloud. The second relies on developments in sensor technology to facilitate much more sophisticated engagements with the environment than has ever previously been possible, moving beyond highly specified tasks under strictly defined circumstances, allowing for entirely new work place designs built around the needs of the robot rather than the humans working alongside it. Rather than organising warehouses in a manner comprehensible to human packers, Amazon warehouses can now order their stock in a manner that seems chaotic to workers because items are located on the basis of imperceptible connections between them (e.g. sales data for this region shows that A and B are frequently shipped together) but allow the robot packers to work ever more efficiently:

    Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 14.21.18

    One of the most radical developments in the near future is likely to be self-driving cars, such as those currently under development at Google. As Kaplan notes, vehicle accidents cause 4 million injuries and cost over $870 billion annually in the United States alone. Seen in this light, the total switch to self-driving cars looks like common sense. But it will also destroy whole categories of existing jobs upon which millions of people depend, including those such as taxi driver which have traditionally been a reliable open route into the work force for new immigrants in many countries. However this has still up till recently be seen as a matter of automating routine jobs. What has seemingly provoked much of the controversy in recent years is the newfound recognition that what are seen to be skilled jobs will themselves be under threat. The most interesting example of this is Narrative Science’s innovative tools to automatically generate stories from structured datasets. Starting with formulaic business stories, they have since moved into sports stories and make a disturbingly convincing case that with enough sophistication about underlying narrative structures, this process can work for any appropriately structured dataset.

    download

    This might not lead to all journalists losing their jobs but it certainly does suggest the possibility that much of the routine work of journalism might be automated. On the one hand, this could be seen as unproblematic given the financial challenges newspapers and magazines face at present: if it can be done cheaper, couldn’t this help secure journalism’s future? On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the journalistic environment won’t suffer if routine entry level jobs are eliminated. Where will the stars of the future, those with sufficient individual expertise to resist automation, get their start? How will they become known? These are questions which have been raised across range of fields even prior to automation, as competitive pressures advantage those with sufficient financial resources and willingness to work for free. But the prospect of automation is likely to intensify this, ratcheting up the already endemic sense of uncertainty under which much of the workforce already labours.

    How are people responding to the uncertainty facing occupational futures? Though the basis for his claims is somewhat unclear, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of this intuitively plausible. He suggests that the spectre of exclusion, the possibility that we won’t make the cut and we will be cast out without hope or prospects, animates a profound need for recognition. We ‘recast ourselves as commodities’ in order to cope under these circumstances, desperately seeking visibility in order to better sell ourselves against a backdrop in which, as the economist Tyler Cowen puts it, average is over. Economic polarisation is becoming the defining feature of the contemporary economy. As Cowen puts it, writing about the United States, “Demand is rising for low-pay, low-skill jobs, and it is rising for high-pay, high-skill jobs, including tech and managerial jobs, but pay is not rising for the jobs in between” (pg 40).

    What Bauman is offering constitutes a speculative social psychology of how people respond to this condition of profound polarisation. If we’re aware that opportunities are contracting and that our future security is uncertain then these fears find FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccessexpression in a competitive scramble to ensure we are recognised and valued: as commodities, if not necessarily as persons. He suggests that much social media behaviour can be seen as an expression of this impulse (though many, including myself, would object to generalisations about how people in general behave across social media in general). But I nonetheless think it identifies something interesting about the fame-seeking cultures that can be found across many platforms, even if there’s a tendency to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion” in a way that serves the self-interest of platforms. The growing tendency toFT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork be fascinated with wealthy Vloggers, in virtue of the fact they are wealthy through vlogging, embodies something of this. Does the fact some people have seemingly secured their own future through social media visibility help propagate the sense that this is a viable strategy for many others? By definition there can only be a handful of celebrities on any platform. What we do know is how many young people see their future as determined by forces outside of their control, insusceptible to change through the avenues of work and education that older generations claim is a pathway to success.

    Could fame culture thrive alongside this fatalism? People pray that they will ‘be discovered’ while also despairing about a future that seems beyond their control? What Furlong and Cartmel call the ‘epistemological fallacy of late modernity’ is a recipe for anxiety: the precise way in which opportunities constrain individuals has become more obscure than ever in a culture of competitive individualism which increasingly lacks the cultural resources to make sense of classed experience, while individuals are made to feel responsible for their biographical outcomes as pure expressions of their own talent and exertion.

    Talent becomes fetishised under these circumstances. 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. We can see it in the way that Donald Trump repeatedly proclaims that “I’m, like, a really smart person”, while condemning his rivals as not smart, without explaining what this really means or how it qualifies him for office. 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. Or to put it more mundanely: “there are plenty of good jobs out there for those who want them, it’s just that people don’t try”. The idea that differential outcomes can be explained away in terms of the moral failings of individuals means we take the existing state of society and the economy for granted: there aren’t questions to be asked about social structures, just more failings to be condemned in individuals. This is something

    These are trends we can already see in contemporary society. My depressing question: how might they intensify under circumstances of widespread structural redundancy? What if the low-wage, low-skill jobs into economic polarisation is forcing much of the workforce rapidly begin to vanish? What will happen if 47% of jobs are eventually automated? It’s possible many new categories of job might open up but, as suggested earlier, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the scale and speed of this replacement. Will those who can’t find work be seen as unfortunate victims of unavoidable change or as moral failures placing a burden on the ‘wealth creators’? Will they mobilise themselves to collectively struggle for the transformation of a social order incapable of providing them access to the good life or will they be mobilised by others through potentially surreptitious means to serve the ends of those who are already wealthy and powerful? Popular culture provides us with many dystopian representations of what this might look like. The graphic novel Lazarus paints a bleak picture of a world in which nation states have been superseded by corporations and a small number of families dominate the planet. There are those who serve the families and those who are surplus to their needs, with the former group being composed of those who have been ‘elevated’ from the latter category. The possibility of freedom from insecurity and struggle represents a powerful tool to keep the population in line, coupled with private militaries to enforce this order through violence:

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    There are many other dystopian representations of a possible future in which there is little work or security for the majority of the population. However there are also popular representations of worlds in which scarcity has been conquered and everyone’s needs are met: ones in which some people still strive for work and adventure because of the intrinsic rewards that these provide. These are only representations but they are the resources we inevitably draw upon, deliberately or otherwise, when imagining the PRluddites1possibilities ahead of us for how these trends will unfold. Both of these categories however tie utopian or dystopian outcomes to the technology itself: seeing it as either liberating us or rendering us redundant. How does this suppress the role of politics – i.e. the tension and conflict between groups with different interests – in determining the outcome of these processes? Does it also preclude the possibility that our future might see a turn against technology, as something deemed to be responsible for systematic disenfranchisement? Would a neo-luddite movement be possible? Or are people too wedded to their devices? Would powerful interests allow such a movement, given the centrality of technology firms to the contemporary economy and the new possibilities for surveillance and control which the internet opens up? These are all open questions but they’re ones which sociology can help us think through in a systematic way, even if not necessarily answer.

     
  • Mark 8:03 am on January 9, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , intellect, meritocracy   

    the intellectual elitism of Silicon Valley 

    From In The Plex, by Steven Levy, pg 138. I’m interested in the politics likely to emerge when this self-conception thrives, all the more so when so many of the early Googlers went on to become multi-millionaires.

    Google took its hiring very seriously. Page and Brin believed that the company’s accomplishments sprang from a brew of minds seated comfortably in the top percentile of intelligence and achievement. Page once said that anyone hired at Google should be capable of engaging him in a fascinating discussion should he be stuck at an airport with the employee on a business trip. The implication was that every Googler should converse at the level of Jared Diamond or the ghost of Alan Turing. The idea was to create a charged intellectual atmosphere that makes people want to come to work. It was something that Joe Kraus realized six months after he arrived, when he took a mental survey and couldn’t name a single dumb person he’d met at Google. “There were no bozos,” he says. “In a company this size? That was awesome.” 

    Google’s hiring practices became legendary for their stringency. Google’s first head of research, Peter Norvig, once called Google’s approach the “ Lake Wobegon Strategy,” which he defined as “only hiring candidates who are above the mean of your current employees.”

    From pg 139-140:

    From the beginning, Google profiled people by which college they had attended. As Page said, “We hired people like us”—brainy strivers from privileged backgrounds who aced the SAT, brought home good grades, and wrote the essays that got them into the best schools. Google sought its employees from Stanford, Berkeley, University of Washington, MIT—the regulars. There were exceptions, but not enough to stop some Googlers from worrying that the workforce would take on an inbred aspect. “You’re going to get groupthink,” warned Doug Edwards, an early marketing hire. “Everybody’s going to have the same background, the same opinions. You need to mix it up.” Even more controversial was Google’s insistence on relying on academic metrics for mature adults whose work experience would seem to make college admission test scores and GPAs moot. In her interview for Google’s top HR job, Stacy Sullivan, then age thirty-five, was shocked when Brin and Page asked for her SAT scores. At first she challenged the practice. “I don’t think you should ask something from when people were sixteen or seventeen years old,” she told them. But Page and Brin seemed to believe that Google needed those … data. They believed that SAT scores showed how smart you were. GPAs showed how hard you worked. The numbers told the story.

    From pg 165:

    It went without saying that Page’s least favorite meetings were one-on-one press interviews. “Larry can be a very, very sensitive and good person,” says one former Google PR hand, “but he has major trust issues and few social graces. Sergey has social graces, but he doesn’t trust people who he thinks don’t approach his level of intelligence.”

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

    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, , meritocracy, , 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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