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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent
Kermit Snelson on Thu, 9 Oct 2003 04:55:17 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent


Nato Thompson:

> For intellectuals. I suspect this issue is larger than the classroom.

It is.  For a full accounting of anti-intellectualism, I think we'd have
to go back thousands of years.  At least as far back as Plato, who in
his dialogue "Theatetus" tells what was already an ancient story about
Thales of Miletus, founder of Greek philosophy:

   "Theodorus, a witty and attractive Thracian servant girl is said to
have mocked Thales for falling into a well while he was observing the
stars and gazing upwards; declaring that he was eager to know the things
in the sky, but that what was behind him and just by his feet escaped
his notice."

The most basic reason for the anti-intellectualism of all periods and
cultures is, I suppose, that intellectualism is nothing more than a
relatively rare condition rooted in a physical and/or psychological
abnormality.  Intellectuals are often persecuted for the exactly same
reason that albinos are often persecuted in Mali.  For a vivid
description of the principle involved here, see "The Painted Bird" by
Jerzy Kosinski.

It is true that those so afflicted are often considered in some cultures
to be in contact with higher truths and pursuits, or "touched by God" in
some way.  But the same applies to mental deficients and the insane, and
I think history shows that the "common people" have never quite been
able to distinguish between these three categories.  All of them are, to
use an old American dialect word, "tetched".

I don't think it is possible to argue invincibly against this view that
intellectuals are truly more creative than others, given that most
intellectual production tends to be so utterly predictable.  Tired
cliches like "<fill in the blank> and its Discontents" are the norm, not
"The Exception" <insert the usual Agamben citation here>.  And every one
of the thousands of times I have heard some pundit intone that the
Chinese characters for "crisis" mean "dangerous opportunity", I am
tempted to respond with the equally valid observation that the Chinese
word for "nerd" is written using characters that mean "book idiot".

In the rare instance that some intellectual does actually come up with
something truly new, her professional colleagues usually attack with a
ferocity that would have put Kosinski off his lunch.  Examples are too
numerous to be worth citing, but the first one that comes to my mind
(perhaps because of Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the case of a now-
famous geologist from Graz, Austria named Alfred Wegener.  His radical
new theory of "continental drift" got him banished from academia.

If the United States of America is to be singled out for its anti-
intellectualism, as it has been here, I would suggest the obvious
reason that certainly did not escape de Tocqueville but that seems
nevertheless to have escaped us so far:  America, at least at the time
de Tocqueville wrote, was a democracy.  Democracy means, literally,
"rule by the common people," and the "common people" do not employ
intellectuals any more than they employ court jesters.  As I suggested
recently in another post, intellectuals as a class are the product of
patronage.  Patronage is an affair of the Úlite.  If their employees,
the intellectuals, have higher prestige among the "common people" in
Europe than they do in the USA, that is probably because titled nobility
and aristocracy are still present there as they are not in the USA,
which was in fact founded by a revolution against that sort of thing.

But take heart, fellow intellectuals.  The American counterrevolution
is just about complete, and a hereditary dynasty of Georges is back on
the throne.  That long nightmare, the American Revolution, is just about
over.  Magazines like "The Atlantic," which once published the likes of
Mark Twain, are now praising time-honored institutions like nepotism and
the British nanny, squeezed in between ads for Lockheed-Martin, wealth
management services, and timesharing arrangements on Gulfstream jets.
The market for other expensive toys, like American intellectuals, has
clearly never been better.  There may soon be opportunities in America
even for a court jester or two.

Kermit Snelson

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