6.03.2007

on celebrity

I flipped through last Sunday's comics today. It was interesting to see different artists graphical commentaries for Memorial Day and the political bents they betrayed. Some of the particularly political ones struck me, however, because of how fully they embodied the state of American (Western? Post post-modern?) intellectualism: these cartoonist are expected to produce their genius on a daily basis, regardless of inspiration or, one can extrapolate, quality.

Market-dominated capitalism has led us into an existence where value is measured by sheer production, and quality and relevance, even, are secondary, if even factors. Unfortunately, it's increasingly clear that this decay is extending (further?) into the academic world.

Academics are driven by a force known by many as "publish or perish" -- academics are expected to publish on a regular basis, or they risk not only irrelevancy within their fields, but losing their teaching and research positions altogether. A professor needs to have published two significant works before even being seriously considered for tenure (a.k.a. stability) in most cases.

Beyond the academic world, we see the media becoming ever-more entertainment instead of information. An alarming number of people are turning to Fox News, the Daily Show and tabloid-esque papers -- the NY Daily News being a prominent example -- for infotainment. Celebrity pundits are becoming our nations great minds, not because of journalistic integrity or experience, even, but rather because of their appealing faces and appealing (or in the case of Fox News, abrasively ignorant but amusing) personalities. Newspapers are trying to stem the drain by putting forth celebrity columnists, which, like cartoonist, are expected to put forth gems of genius on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

There is, of course, a harmonious balance to be found between the celebration of the individual and of the idea, but contemporary American (Western.... and increasingly global?) culture is clearly shifted towards worshiping the individual. Perhaps this stems from cultures deeply rooted in monotheistic religions; perhaps it's rooted in capitalism which can only operate with a class system implemented through cultural myths elevating, inexplicably, certain groups above others; or perhaps the latter is simply the product of the former.

In any case, what happened to ideas? I think we've reached a point when most Americans wouldn't even entertain the thought of having a system of proportional representation. The masses, i'm convinced, are much more concerned with voting for individuals with ideas, not ideas themselves. But with the professionalization of political representation (i.e. career politicians becoming the norm), I think the American focus on the individual is getting out of hand. Of course people often evolve in their beliefs, sometimes suddenly, but when sudden changes come with each opinion poll, there's something dangerous in lauding the follower as a true leader. It makes sense for people to appreciate an administrator who tries to give them what they desire, but why not aknowledge it as that? Leaders should lead -- emerge from the woodwork to share ideas with others and help them be implemented -- and people should appreciate them for their ideas. Leaders should not be appreciated for the simple act of being, and administrators should certainly not be appreciated for representing (i.e. serving as mediator) the masses. I use the word "leader" loosely, of course.

The professionalization of the production of ideas has ostensibly removed a certain amount of power from the average person, much like the professionalization of the medical field deliberately stripped midwives of their legitimacy and masked the contributions of women to various fields, such as that which we now know as Chemistry. But while oral tradition -- again, a term I use loosely to refer to the culturally crafted "histories" imagined to create, reproduce and/or enforce cultural norms -- is often overlooked as a legitimate source of information, it's power is more obvious than ever as the world becomes increasingly globalized, and cultural artifacts literally spread throughout the world in seconds. Cultural Studies as an academic field (I'll overlook the irony) has only begun to demonstrate the innumerable ways forces previously un- or under-acknowledged shape human conscious and interaction. Perhaps most importantly, it has highlighted the complicated conversation between past and future that gives rise to the imagination of the "present" and between the idea and individual which births "genius."

Perhaps a newfound appreciation for the idea -- and just the idea -- and a return to actual leadership can save humanity.

No comments: