Unintelligible

The world no longer makes sense to me.  Boltanski and Chiapello (in their superb book, The New Spirit of Capitalism [Verso, 2005]) talk about the need for intelligibility and, crucially, insist that intelligibility, which underwrites motivation, must include some standard of justice.  Only such a standard makes judgment possible, thus creating ways to select between possible courses of action and different assessments of people.  Justice is not the only standard.  Efficiency and profit (cost/benefits analysis) are also standards employed in making decisions.  But pure cynicism is very, very rare.  Some notion of justice always acts as a “constraint” upon efficiency and profit.  Pure greed is not a motive many are willing to embrace—and fewer are willing to publicly announce as their sole purpose.  Crucially, Boltanski and Chiapello insist that the standards of justice provide real and effective brakes on capitalism’s search for profit.  It is not true that anything goes.  Some kind of working compromise—one that is intelligible and deemed legitimate—between justice and capitalist exigencies has to be in place.

Just what compromise exists at any given moment varies.  That is the burden of their book.  The think that we have, since 1990 (or so), entered a new “spirit of capitalism,” a new way of understanding (and internalizing) its justificatory bases.  The justification of capitalism is both the  way it publicly explains itself and the source of personal motivation for individual actors.

And here is where I run into my current trouble.  In terms of the academy, the demand of “publish or perish,” and the assignment of status (among other rewards) on those who publish the most, now seems to me insane.  Society is paying for us (the academics) to fill up libraries with books and journals that are mostly not read and which are incredibly redundant.  The only possible justifications that I can see are: 1. You need to seed the field prodigally in order to get the 2-3% of work that represents real advancements of knowledge.  Research is just inherently a very wasteful process, and we should just accept that fact—although it is one that is almost never acknowledged.  And certainly this justification of the whole academic edifice is never offered in public as the primary one.  2. You need to have all that mediocre research in order that educators remain up to date with the advancement of knowledge in their fields.  Since it is important for the educated (i.e. our students) to know what is the current best knowledge, their teachers have to be au currant.

I really don’t see any other convincing account of the whole research apparatus of the universities.  In my field especially, picking over the carcass of Moby Dick seems particularly pointless—even while having students read Moby Dick still seems to me a very good idea.  Which means we have our priorities exactly backwards, emphasizing the “research” over the teaching.

At the societal level, it seems to me that we have entered an age of cynicism that calls Boltanski and Chiapello’s view of justice as a real constraint overly optimistic.  What has been so discouraging about the past year (from the election through to the efforts to repeal Obama-care and alter the tax code to favor the rich and corporations) is that appeals to justice are simply off the table.  “Winning” is enough justification.  We need to make America “more competitive” and we need to insure that we are economically better off and militarily stronger than every other nation.  This looks like fascism because the average citizen is expected to identify with the nation’s “win” even when no benefits of that winning accrue to him.  It’s sacrifice for the average Joe in order to secure the national victory.

Sure, there is some claptrap about freedom and some gestures toward meritocracy.  But they are so obviously claptrap (how is getting cancer a matter of merit, of failed individual effort?; for that matter, what did the laid-off worker do to deserve her fate?) that no one, in this age of cynicism, is taken in.  Rather, it is sauve qui peut and the devil take the hindmost.  And that’s why the world no longer makes sense to me.  Such naked disregard for others, such straight-forward hostility to any notions of justice or of the common good are, quite simply, incredible.  Especially since people, in their face-to-face interactions, don’t act this way.  Yet they vote for politicians whose cynicism and venery, whose lack of commitment to the people they are supposed to serve, are on vivid display every day.

All the polls show that people want government guaranteed health care, want the rich taxed more heavily, want the “dreamers” granted legal status, want sensible gun control.  But then they vote for representatives who refuse to deliver any of those things.  That makes no sense to me.  I don’t understand this world anymore.

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