I’ve picked up a Slavoj Žižek book for the first time in a while and found the characteristics which led me to take a break from his writing have only grown over time. He links Me Too to victimhood early in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. From pg 6:

As in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous ‘injustices’, ironies, and so on. (For example, I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence.) But, again, none of this should distract us; rather, we should focus on the problems that lie ahead. Although some countries are already experiencing a new post-patriarchal sexual culture (look at Iceland, where two thirds of children are born out of a wedlock, and where women occupy more posts in public institutions than men), one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures. New rules will have to be established in order to avoid a sterile culture of fear and uncertainty –plus, of course, we must make sure that this awakening does not turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status.

He reads victimhood in terms of the “weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as being ultimately responsible for his fate, and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status as a victim of circumstances beyond his control” (pg 6). It reflects an “extreme narcissistic perspective in which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite of, but rather the inherent supplement to, the liberal free subject” (pg 7). I don’t think there’s anything inherently rightward about exploring this thesis, though it being offered as the truth of any social movement or cultural moment is self-evidently absurd.

If we read him charitably though it is clear this is not what he is doing, rather his point is one of collective agency. How do we ensure a “post-patriarchal sexual culture’ can be built? Will trading narratives of victimisation contribute to this project or make it more difficult? But even this most charitable reading seems spectacularly tone deaf, as does his need to qualify the status of Louis CK’s acts. It’s difficult not to perceive a slide here, as a contrarian objection to ‘political correctness’ (something which he clearly misreads to begin with, failing to recognise the profoundly agentive character of it: far from being a diffuse culture of self-censorship, it begins with people making demands) leads to something darker. It’s a more thought provoking read than I expected but there a distinctly alt-light (not alt-right) themes prominent amongst the familiar features of a Žižek text. It remains to be seen where he is going in the longer term.

I thought these reflections by Mariano Zukerfeld on pg 4 of his Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism were absolutely spot on. It would unfair to present this as a characteristic of poststructuralism as such, but there can be a dogmatism to poststructuralist thinkers which is all the more frustrating for their own obliviousness to it:

On the one hand, much of its indisputable publishing success has been based on concepts that, even though they seem attractive initially, are ultimately beautiful but of little use. On the other hand, many of these critical philosophical initiatives, when they engage with discussions about the capitalist economy, adopt concepts from orthodox economics in a completely naturalised and acritical way. Thus, they ascend to their concepts upon the scaffolding provided by the dominant ideology. More generally, I do not share these approaches’ rejection of the categories of totality, contradiction, negativity, and I believe that much of their blithe positivity makes them functional to the dominant ideology of informational capitalism. Finally, this tradition brandishes the banners of difference, otherness, multiplicity. However, in practice it is no more adept at dialogue with difference (in other words with those viewpoints that do not echo its mantras) than any other dogmatism. This intolerance in the face of plurality, debate, and constitutive contradictions, that for Marxism, scientism, or any religion can be explained (disagreeably but with coherence) by the belief that there is one truth, which they are in possession of, is completely unsustainable when observed in these ‘philosophies of difference’ .

This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.

It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:

The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own.  (pg 28)

I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.

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.

I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

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On September 8th I’m going to walk nine miles from the top of my street in Cambridge to Chittering in Cambridgeshire. Will I survive walking without an experienced navigator or a reliable 3G signal? Will I slip out of exhaustion and fall into the Cam? Will I ever make it home to Molly?

The only way to find out is to sponsor me, as much or as little as you can, before I set out in one month’s time. You can donate online here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mark-carrigan2

From loc 1171-1189 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry:

Then as vice chair heading Business Innovations, Comstock became the company’s chief futurist, attending digital confabs, planting herself in Silicon Valley, scouting and making it her business to know cutting-edge agencies and entrepreneurs, seeking out partners for unusual ways to market. A marketing challenge for GE, enunciated at every monthly marketing meeting chaired by CMO Linda Boff, with their agencies in attendance, is to shift the brand ID of GE from an old industrial to a cool digital company. Cool digital companies are more attractive to Wall Street because they are perceived as growth stocks, and are seen as welcoming to the young engineers that shape digital companies. A way to advance this goal was for GE to establish under the auspices of the CMO a four-person office, the Disruption Lab, directed by Sam Olstein, thirty-three, who comes to work with his hair spiked and wearing jeans and sneakers. His foremost task, he says, is to “have a good perspective of trends and technology; of where we see activity of new start-ups forming around, say, messaging, around content creation.” He says they search “for what people think is cool and interesting and primed for growth.” He scans Apple’s App Store to check on new apps that break into the top 100. Encouraged by Comstock and Boff, he pushed, he says, to make GE “a publisher, a content creator. What our brand represents is science and technology and the awe around science and technology, and that’s a very focused perspective. It’s the same focused perspective that HBO has, that Discovery channels have, that the Walt Disney Company has. We want to build a platform with the reach of any other media and entertainment platform out there.” It need not be branded like Disney, but he believes GE can create content and distribute it over its own Web site, over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, National Geographic channels, or online publications like Slate.

I came across this extract on loc 1342-1360 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry, detailing an intervention made by thought leader extraordinaire Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at  Publicis groupe. It was in the context of a meeting between executives from a range of agencies and Bank of America to discuss the challenging climate facing the latter:

the thoughts of soft-spoken Rishad Tobaccowala, their principal outside strategist, who she privately describes as “the smartest guy in the room.” They appear to have very different personalities. She wears oversized eyeglasses and is capable of commanding a conversation. He wears round, frameless eyeglasses and his slight frame conveys an almost professorial air, which is enhanced because he sits, Buddha-like, and does not rush to speak. In a voice so soft people craned forward or sideways, as if it would help them hear, he cautioned: “We are at the beginning of this journey.” When the bank talks about its environmental deeds, for example, it is not “a targeted, one-on-one message. It is a narrative, and it relies on emotion. Lou is right: We will know, increasingly, what people want because of their behavior. But the struggle is what does the consumer want from Bank of America. Successful companies realize we outsource the work to the customer. We do the listening and the responding. The reason Amazon in its deterministic form—or Facebook—can tell you everything is because you are creating your own bundle of what you want.” But don’t confuse a single product or purchase with what consumers want from a brand. “What Americans are asking for is, ‘Who is on my side?’ Sanders and Trump built surprising support because the message sent is: ‘They are on my side.’ If you think about a bank’s purposes, no one is as close to aligning with them as you are.”

Has anyone encountered other instances of the advertising industry explicitly invoking populists in this way? I’d be really curious to see them if so.

In the last week, I’ve realised that I’ve made a fundamental error in how I’ve approached using Omnifocus over the last few years. What has always appealed to me is the flexibility it affords, enabling me to disentangle what I have to do from where and how I do it. If your working life consists of a whole range of different commitments (in my case a 3 day a week job, a 2.5 day a week job, a small freelance business and a whole range of projects) then this is really helpful because you can’t rely on the spatial and temporal organisation of a single workplace to structure your workflow.

The problem I’m realising is that it creates a tendency to assume your work fits around your hard calendar. You leave gaps which Omnifocus fills with tasks, presenting you with the most useful suggestions of what you could do depending on where you are and the equipment you have with you, represented as contexts in the software. This is where GTD advocates stress the importance of the weekly review. You have to structure your hard calendar in order to ensure you have sufficient time in the right context, as opposed to simply responding to the context you happen to be in and the time you happen to have available to you.

However this has rarely worked for me because of the weird time horizons involved in how my working life fits together. What I do is usually scheduled months in advance or days in advance, with little in between. This means that a great deal of coordination falls through the gaps of a weekly review, if indeed I manage to sustain the practice. The problem is not the brute availability of time in my life, as much as ensuring I leave enough time to get my core work done (recorded in the different Omnifocus contexts) while remaining open to scheduling social and work things at short notice. This is what a typical week in November now looks like for me:

The contexts are now part of my hard calendar to ensure I spend a couple of days at home each week and at least two days in the office. This inevitably involves restricting how much travelling I can do but my sense of overwork recently has been because I can’t co-ordinate the role of travel in my life, leaving me committing to more moving around than I can sustain given the amount of time I need to spend each week in specific places focusing on specific categories of things. I’m quietly confident this will solve the problem of over-work for me because the issue I’ve been having is about scheduling, rather than the time and energy I have available for it. My plan is to try and steer clear of Twitter for a bit while I try and embed these new routines:

https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/1027880360229658624

It’s been useful to reflect on this because it’s helped me define my current priorities. I’m co-developing a fascinating strand of research at CPGJ on the platform university, providing the theoretical context within which I can pursue other activities concerning the institutionalisation of digital technology within the university and the social sciences. I’m more committed than ever to The Sociological Review after Undisciplining, increasingly aware of the importance of what we’re doing in terms of securing Sociology’s place both inside and outside the academy. I’ve stepped back from journals and edited books, in order to focus on a number of books which are either partially written or being carried around in my head that I seriously need to finish: Social Media for Academics 2nd edition, The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism, the CSO volume I’m co-editing, The Public and Their Platforms (with Lambros Fatsis) and The Sociology of Big Data (with Hamish Robertson and Jo Travaglia). There’s such a huge amount of work here that I’m increasingly aware of the necessity that I organise my life around it, which I’ve failed to do thus far, with any other commitments being minimised, including  only doing freelance work if it’s particularly rewarding (in multiple senses of the term).

It feels like I’ve been trying to sort this out in my mind for the last few months and that it finally seems clear to me. Though of course the real test will in the months and years ahead. But I’m now certain that I know what I want to do in the next few years and how I plan to do it. In the past, I’ve often been caught between so many interesting things that I was unable to choose between them, in the process doing far too few of them properly. That’s now changing and it’s a really pleasing feeling, even if it was quite tricky to get myself into this position.

This is an accusation which Jaron Lanier makes strongly on pg 134 of his recent Ten Reasons To Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Coming from someone who was less of an insider, it might seem like a rather shrill and slightly paranoid reading of the culture of digital elites. However I find it hard not to take Lanier seriously, even if what he says here would benefit from being unpacked further:

One of the reasons that BUMMER works the way it does is that the engineers working at BUMMER companies often believe that their top priority among top priorities isn’t serving present-day humans, but building the artificial intelligences that will inherit the earth. The constant surveillance and testing of behavior modification in multitudes of humans is supposedly gathering data that will evolve into the intelligence of future AIs. (One might wonder if AI engineers believe that manipulating people will be AI’s purpose.) The big tech companies are publicly committed to an extravagant “AI race” that they often prioritize above all else. It’s completely normal to hear an executive from one of the biggest companies in the world talk about the possibility of a coming singularity, when the AIs will take over. The singularity is the BUMMER religion’s answer to the evangelical Christian Rapture. The weirdness is normalized when BUMMER customers, who are often techies themselves, accept AI as a coherent and legitimate concept, and make spending decisions based on it.

It strike me that there are two things going on here which we ought to distinguish, at least on an analytical level. Firstly, there are emerging forms of techno-religion within Silicon Valley concerning the significance of artificial intelligence for the future of humanity. If we don’t take these seriously as religious forms, we risk missing the causal influence they may exercise over the organisational life of technology forms. But we need to avoid taking them too seriously and imputing a singular character to what appear in reality to be multiple, fragmented and partial frameworks of belief. Secondly, as Evgeny Morozov has powerfully argued in the last year, the AI arms race at a corporate level needs to be understood in terms of overarching systemic trends within Silicon Valley. The advertising business has a shelf life, overheads on machine learning are much lower and these firms intend to use the data they have accumulated for advertising purposes in order to pivot into providing the infrastructure for machine learning to be woven into every aspect of the social fabric. These are two distinct trends, even if they may be reinforcing through the commitment they engender towards a corporate strategy. However where it becomes interesting is if the underlying methodological assumptions begin to be contested on a political level. If a vision of the singularity currently engenders commitment to the job and provides a lens through which organisational decisions are inflected, what happens if external groups seek to hold up such centrality?

I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

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.

I woke up with this phrase stuck in my mind recently, after a strange and vivid dream. It involved a landscape somewhere between Deep Space Nine and Snowpiercer, dark corners filled with metallic pools and steam hissing across braying crowds. I can’t remember the narrative of the dream but a crucial idea from it remains clear in my mind.

The Last Man is about the suffocation of growth rather than the end of the impulse to grow. It is the end of resonance rather than the cessation of our search for it. It is the loss of our capacity to give birth to stars and a forgetting that we ever had it:

And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: It is time for man to fix his goal.  It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.  His soil is still rich enough for it.  But this soil will one day be poor and exhausted; no lofty tree will be able to grow from it.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond mankind— and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!  I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.  I tell you: you have still chaos in you.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.  Alas!  The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.

The dream left me with a vivid sense of the claustrophobia of imminence which might still be felt after this forgetting. The sense of being hemmed in, aspiring to be something more while denied the conditions which would make this growth possible.  Many of the questions I’m interested in ultimately relate to this feeling, its sociology and psychology. It’s odd to realise that I’m only now coming to understand the final object of years of work.

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.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

For the next edition of Social Media for Academics, I’ve been thinking a lot about hybrid formats for presenting theoretical ideas through social media. A really powerful example of this is the video essay Camera Ludica by marco de mutiis which explores photography in video games through a three-part essay combining in game footage, plain text slides and screencasts of browsing scholarly material. Different sources are overlaid against a black canvas, providing a gripping collage of a debate playing itself out in real time. As well as finding the subject itself interesting, I thought this was a fascinating example of a powerful format which sufficiently creative academics could use with relatively little technical skill.

It reminds me of a project Margaret Archer tried to setup a few years ago looking at visualising social theory, using the affordances of digital media to develop ways of expressing theoretical ideas without depending on linear text or the idiosyncratic diagrams of theorists. If theoretical ideas are to survive in the attention economy then we need to become creative in how they are expressed. But there are immense opportunities here to find non-linear ways of exploring theoretical questions which might prove to be engaging to a much broader audience then is typically the case with theoretical publications.

I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:

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The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.

However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.

Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.

It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.

A few months ago, I recounted to a collaborator the details of a foolish mistake I made when planning a special occasion. Assuming the cake would be the easiest item on a long to do list, I left this till last, failing to recognise that cakes of this sort would require a lot of notice. It left me phoning round in a panic, until I eventually found someone who could do it at short notice. My collaborator remarked that he too could have seen himself making such an assumption, recognising aspects of himself in the assumption I had made and the problem it had created. ‘Easiest’ to me was coded as the most immediate and straightforward task, considered in terms of its internal logic, rather than being the  most predictable, quickest or controllable. I suspect this assumption reveals something quite deep about how I’m orientated towards the world, regardless of the counter-factual question of whether I might have planned this process more carefully had I been less stressed about the impending event.

This has left me thinking about the sociology of stupid assumptions. By this I don’t mean those occasions on which we make a mistake due to rushing, error or stress that could easily have been avoided. I mean those mistakes which result from deeply held, though flawed, assumptions running up against the reality of the world. These are assumptions we might not knowingly hold yet which find themselves revealed through our actions. They are the common threads which bind together persistent missteps as we make our way through the world, reflecting a subtle incongruity between the structures of our thought and the structure of the world. They can become things we are aware of and reflect upon, even things which we struggle against. But they are persistent and deep seated, raising the question of where they come from.

The obvious answer to this is the Bourdieusian one, finding the origins of these habits of thought in our original social context. The assumptions of our natal context get reproduced in the assumption we make about the world as adults, with contextual features sedimented into cognitive habits that reflect the world as we were brought up to exist within it rather than the way it is necessarily is. This is a brief sketch but I hope it’s not a facile one because I respect this line of argument and I believe I understand it, even if it’s not possible to convey its depth and sophistication in a short blog post.

Nonetheless I wonder if it can account for the feeling of recognition which my collaborator felt when recognising my stupid assumption as something akin to his own? Can it account for the recognition we come to in ourselves, often isolated from an awareness of class and upbringing because it relates to an assumption so specific that it can be claimed to be inherited only in the tautological sense that it must have come from somewhere? Can it account for the role of technologies in fermenting these assumptions? In my case, I suspect the problem is as much to do with the constraints of the to do list, something I rely upon to an immense degree (as does at least one of my parents), failing as it does to capture contingencies surrounding a task in the sequential logic it imposes upon our tasks. These aren’t really counter-arguments as much as requests for elaboration, reflecting my newfound belief that the sociology of stupid assumptions tracks some of the most interesting questions in social theory.