Adding to the Paralysis: Branded Academia and the Proliferation of Noise
In this era the need to brand and market everything as stylized ‘products’ has become pervasive. Whether we speak of technologies, services, goods, recreation, art, literature, food, information or knowledge, the need to ‘package’ for broader consumption has become ubiquitous. We live in the era of the ‘product’, and nothing escapes it. It is an era where people have come to view themselves, and each other, as products of one kind or another.
For many people this value system has become normative, unquestioned. Many of them argue that they are not putting form before content, but rather giving form to good content in order to ensure its greater absorption. This is understandable when it comes to regular products that are bought and sold in the marketplace, but when it comes to information, knowledge, art, literature and intellectual and academic work some distinct dangers emerge.
Indeed, there is a profound difference between letting a piece of work speak for itself and engaging in a drawn out campaign of speaking for the work or gift-wrapping it in the paraphernalia of the zeitgeist. This is because efforts to distill form (read “brand” proposition) and content (read substance) often follow very different processes. While distilling form focuses on the ‘elevator pitch’ to describe a work, distillation of content must necessarily proceed with care. Content is misrepresented by the need to generate consumable form. Letting the market dictate your choices about a piece of work compromises it from the outset.
The significance of a piece of academic or intellectual work should ideally rise to authority by virtue of how well its content is received by a readership – whether it consists of peers or not – rather than the amount of effort and money that is invested in a marketing campaign to promote it. The drive to brand and market a piece of academic or intellectual work often leads to disingenuous representation of the value of the work. Heuristic arguments are presented as proof. Hypotheses are presented as conclusions, and correlative evidence is presented as causal.
Props are employed to lend legitimacy to the work. Big names and big titles – that serve as brands themselves – are brought in to endorse the product. The complexities in the work are reduced to produce an easily consumable narrative. Simplistic terminology and phrases are deployed as sound bites to be taken up and spread through the ether of social and conventional media, to be thoughtlessly regurgitated and reiterated in the macro and micro interactions that make up society. It must penetrate and become normative, everyday, banal, in order to be regarded as relevant. Here and there real theoretical terminology and phraseology are sprinkled like holy water throughout the text to lend it a false legitimacy as an intellectual product.
The aim is to plant phrases, terms and a simple narrative into the mainstream discourse. The aim is not to faithfully delve into the complexities of the subject matter and emerge with an understanding that either crystallizes a vast amount of information, theoretical knowledge and perspectives on them, or acknowledges the irreducibility of the subject matter and works honestly with that.
Knowledge and theory take a back seat to rhetoric and posturing. Much is lost when content is displaced for form. Content then becomes unqualified, malleable; wielded for whatever purpose it is directed towards. It becomes anything to anyone. Today, words such as “resilience” and “sustainability” have become precisely that despite their rigorous academic and intellectual definitions. They have become mere jargon, spread out into different spaces and places and wielded in order to create a facade of meaning and authoritative perspective.
When it comes to books, one has to wonder what exactly is being sold. Is it the author or the book? If you’ve ever submitted a book proposal to a publisher you quickly learn that having a “social media platform” or “public image” is often more important than whatever content you propose. Celebrity sells. Kim Kardashian can sell a ghostwritten cookbook or ‘life philosophy’ book today and it would outsell any book by Sartre or Albert Camus. In fact they would likely not even get published in the first place. Only pop philosophy has a place in the ‘market’ for books today.
New terms, phrases, concepts, conceptual frameworks, ideas penetrate the popular discourse and become entrenched, without any rigour first being applied to them. They become the feedstock for tropes that multiply across the media and social media spectrum. There is great pressure to stay up to date with the latest terminology. It has become colloquial and is readily consumed in the same way as the 52 season fashion year (i.e. weekly) is. Amidst the constant stream of noise clarity becomes more distant. Meaning is not only relative; it becomes lost. There isn’t even an educated sense of its relativity. Facts become untrustworthy. Events become fleeting. Attention spans become shorter. Focus is lost. The polis and society are rendered bamboozled, confused, indifferent and apathetic. With nothing to hold on to there is no capacity to act.
Under these circumstances action is more likely to emerge from those who disengage. Only those who are capable of detachment can gain perspective and the traction to act. And so it is those who retreat from the milieu, whether into minimalism, anarchism, spiritualism, extremism, popular lifestyle cults, and the like, who – rightly or wrongly – consolidate the capacity to act. For in order to act in opposition to the status quo one requires a perspective that enables one to do so.
And so it is with groups like ‘hacktivists” (e.g. Anonymous), whistleblowers ( e.g. Wikileaks), extremists such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts, traditionalist and religious groups, doomsday preppers etc. that are taking action – whether at micro or macro-scales – in defiance of the prevailing global system. Conservative groups and anarchist and hard left groups are more present in the space of political action. Political action is coming from the poles not the middle (with some exceptions).
The broader spectrum of society (i.e. those in the middle), however, are caught in an un-chartable sea of information and half-baked knowledge offerings. Academics, experts and intellectuals emphasize the performative over the substantive and render their offerings as snake-oil salesmen do. They prepare Ted talks, stage performances, use subliminal messaging and appeal to the lowest common denominator in their quest for recognition. It no longer matters whom the recognition comes from, as long as they are many. Success is having an audience. It is not necessarily related to the quality of their offerings. So the audience is wooed, seduced, but left with little of real value in their hands, and are largely unable to act upon the knowledge they have been sold. It is a benign disposable product, bereft of the power to transform worldviews, lives and societies. It is easily cast aside for a new one. It does not root. It is, in this sense, not truly radical, and so cannot bring about anything new.
There are exceptions of course, but one has to wade through a tsunami of bogus intellectual content to find them, or one has to “be in the know” – part of a select group who filter out the crap for you – in essence a ‘knowledge elite’ of sorts. This needs to change, but in order for it to change there needs to be a mounting rejection of the modes of production through which academic and intellectual thought is transmitted into the popular domain. There is already a clearly discernible rejection emerging and this is reflected in the movements towards alternative media sources and intellectual opinions. Online journalism, blogging and fact-checking platforms are more sought after today as distrust of conventional media and academic and popular intellectual expert opinion – i.e. the establishment – has grown. Information and knowledge economy offerings are facilitating this movement and will likely play a key role in facilitating the full transition to a post-media society. The question is; how will this decentralised, distributed set of movements play out?
Indeed, what will it result in? Will it facilitate the emergence of yet more confusion? Will it serve as a liberating force that diverges and coalesces but nonetheless provides the basis for coherent action? Will it grow into a polarised virtual polis or will it facilitate greater understanding and consensus building?
Disengagment: Getting Unstuck and Taking Action
This evolution depends, in large part, on how self-organisation within the new spaces unfolds, as well as how controls are exercised on these newly emerging spaces. In particular, how closely emerging forms of self-organization couples with organisation within society itself – i.e. at the grassroots – will likely determine how effective the new and emerging spaces are at seeding and catalysing broader societal transformation and transition. And currently, in this era, that coupling is growing closer as society increasingly decouples from the conventional establishment and societal institutions that service it i.e. governments, media, experts, academics and public intellectuals alike.
Whether they are virtual or physical, the spaces in which new offerings and capabilities are emerging need to be carefully guarded, lest they be sabotaged or co-opted to reproduce more of the same as that which has come before. Currently there are no clear signals that indicate what exactly will emerge in this space. Instead, a duality has emerged where right and left poles have been energised.
At the same time there is also profound anti-ideological sentiment growing. Movements such as the Occupy movement, and the Five Star movement in Italy, are anti-elitist movements, but they also exhibit profound discontent with prevailing ideological approaches towards political life, work, consumption, ecological and environmental sustainability, lifestyle choices, ownership, and much more.
The critical factor is disengagement from the mechanisms that reinforce the status quo – conventional media, traditional establishment politics, advertising, academia, popular intellectualism, trade and commerce, banking, food, agriculture and so forth – and mounting a fresh attack on them from a position of disengagement.
It is not enough to work within the system. The system needs to be confronted on all sides and forced to change. It needs to steadily be given less and less degrees of freedom to manoeuvre and self-replicate itself, for it is in the nature of the system to maintain itself, to retain its basic identity and to adapt only where forced to, all the while seeking to preserve itself. It will meet movements and attempt to absorb them where it cannot crush or thwart them. That is how it survives.
So the offerings that are formulated from the outside need to resist being co-opted; they need to proceed from a view that it seeks to replace conventional systems entirely. They may originally be forced into some kind of symbiosis with existing systems but it must always remain clear on the need to displace and replace the system. Offerings that target the functions, controls and processes by which the system propagates are critical in this battle, as only by effectively replacing and displacing these can the system eventually be defeated.
This approach is one that seeks to establish an evolutionary approach to revolution, one that embraces innovation and emergence as the sources of change rather than attempting to simply tear down and replace systems in a top-down manner. It is an approach that seeks to let emergence and innovation from the bottom up lead the charge rather than grand ideological or theoretical impositions from the top-down. Whereas the former relies on the broader participation of society and its many groups and individuals the latter typically revolves around rallying a populist movement around the designs of a tiny political and intellectual elite.
The key strength of this approach is that it draws on society itself to seed and catalyse change and is hence owned by society itself. It is not the preserve of intellectual, political and wealthy elites to engineer as they see fit. It devolves power, even if imperfectly, and opens up room for the prevailing power hierarchies to be challenged and undermined. Elite power, wealth and influence is set against the choices of the broader majority – enabled by innovative and new mechanisms – forcing elites to adapt instead.
Systemic change is possible. It has the potential to emerge from peer-to-peer interactions, transactions and the like, which can spawn new vehicles through which society administers its various functions and processes. It can cut out the middlemen and render the power-bases of elites outdated and defunct. It can bring services and benefits to a broader range of the citizenry. It can eradicate borders, boundaries and constraints and introduce new ways to work, live, learn and contribute.
The possibilities are endless and a new era beckons. However, we need to begin rejecting the systems that stand in the way. Branded academia and intellectualism cannot forge a new way forward for us because it is fundamentally dependent on and constrained by the very same system that is standing in the way of change. Even a return to more traditional academia and intellectualism will likely fail to provide the kind of vision that is required for 21st Century society; it simply cannot go beyond its limited silos and entrenched disciplinary constraints to deal with the complexity of 21st Century life or its challenges.
What is needed is a new era of knowledge production and absorption entirely; one that breaks with the systems of the past four centuries and the post-war consensus to open up new spaces where knowledge creation is assessed, valued and disseminated differently. Disengagement is the first step - a purging of sorts is necessary – and the second step is to begin to envision and create new vehicles for society to interact with. How society responds will be the determining factor, and not how the market or elites respond.
In this framing, freedom of choice will matter as much as the abundance of choice, if not more, as true freedom is not just having an abundance of choice but having diverse choices available to society. When society’s choices begin to shape the future, and are not exclusively shaped by prevailing power structures, then freedom – at a societal scale – becomes realisable. We need to go beyond the notion of freedom as purely that of the individual – even though it is critically important – and envision freedom of society as a whole if we are to speak coherently about freedom.
The role of knowledge in enabling diverse choice is undeniable, but the current systems of knowledge are compromised, outdated and ill-fitted to the challenges of the 21st Century and the future. A shift in the modes of knowledge production is necessary, and can potentially help generate broader transition towards a substantively different kind of society. The first step is to disengage, but then we must act. It is not enough to merely disengage. We must begin building the new. And it has never been clearer that the time to begin is now.