Monday, August 23, 2004

Why Some Journalists *And Academics* Do What They Do

A term from literary theory might actually be useful here [hey! stop laughing! I'm serious...].

Theory people often talk about praxis, a term right on the border between useful terminology and alienating jargon. "Praxis," in this context, means how the theory gets put into practice, or what actually get done if you accept the theory.

This is a sore spot for many literary theoreticians, because the praxis of their earth-shaking theories often ends up being banal or even invisible. What good, one might ask, is your theory of the deconstruction of everything if the only praxis turns out to be that your books gets some good reviews and you get chatted up at MLA? The larger the claims for the theory, the more problematic the praxis.
The real, practical praxis (i.e., what academics actually do) always seems to be 'vote the straight democratc-party ticket and donate to various causes.' Nothing wrong with that, but it's a bit of embarrassment for theory, since about 100 million other people in America manage to do the same exact thing without the benefit of the deep theoretical analysis. Old-school cultural materialists (i.e., honest Marxists and 'Old Left' folks), often make younger theory-people profoundly uncomfortable by pointing out that, from a materialist perspective, there's no difference in praxis from the college professor who votes the straight ticket after an exhausting Foucaultian analysis of late-capitalistic discourses and the 92-year-old retired welder who votes the straight ticket because he always has and always will.

Faced with the praxis problem, theoretically minded folks go in either of two directions: the first is what we can call "Trickle-Down Theory." The idea is that the rarified, complex analysis of the academy will eventually end up influencing policy. Thus you may have written a book about masculinist discourse in 10th-century Latin Saints' Lives that only 30 people on earth will read, but eventually you'll be helping to overturn the social order.
There are, of course, some examples of theoretical ideas being taken up by the culture--Catherine McKinnon's feminist scholarship, for example, led to a lot of sexual harrassment law. But it's hard for the average scholar to argue with a straight face that the best way to end racism is to write a hard-to-read book about William Faulkner. (That's probably why people have gotten so angry at me when I've used the "Trickle-Down Theory" description in public). If the theories are as complex and difficult to understand as they are (given the current state of theoretical discourse conventions), it's hard to believe that the bits of theory that do trickle out are as influential on the social order as, say, volunteering at a literacy center one night per week.

The second approach is to use the insights gained from theory to influence one's teaching and thus one's students. But the complexity problem rears its ugly head here as well. If theory is complex enough to require whole books written for very specialized audiences, then how are students going to master it at the same time they have to deal with difficult sources, unfamiliar concepts, etc.? Teachers try, but students often aren't ready to put the theory in context yet. That doesn't mean that they are stupid, just that there's a lot of background that has to be absorbed.

And so, frustrated professors (and journalists), end up trying to push the praxis on the students. That is, students can't necessarily engage with the theory at its highest levels, but they can at least be coaxed, even forced, to adopted the practical outcome of the theory: and that praxis is, usually, limited to having a certain set of opinions and voting the straight ticket.

So, yes, we are back in a loop. And we can give a clear label to what happens when profs and journalists get frustrated and rush to the short-cut: Propaganda. I'm going to be a pedant [oh, that's a surprise], and note that "Propaganda" means "for the pagani," "for the country people." The original idea of propaganda was to get the country people to believe the right thing -- to enact the correct praxis -- even if they weren't capable of following the argument.

I think that a great many journalists and academics have decided that the pagani really aren't ready for all of the information. Corporate knowledge-manufacture or government manipulation have, in the minds of many people, become so powerful that the pagani believe the wrong things. The only way to set them straight is to fight fire with fire, distortion with distortion and manipulation with manipulation. I don't think that academics and journalists are doing this in bad faith. Quite the opposite. Based on my personal experience I think that journalists and academics really and truly believe that the praxis they want to enact is the right thing for society and therefore the ends are worth the means.

This explains why journalists are not simply reporting the news, but figuring out how to report the news so that the pagani will draw the 'correct' conclusions. In this case, the 'correct' conclusion is to vote a certain way in November.

I have great sympathy for the honest concern for the society and culture that is, in my view, at the heart of this behavior. But I think it is a terrible mistake: the pagani aren't as stupid as they appear to be, and they resent being manipulated. The end result may be that the pagani still don't adopt the preferred praxis, but they do end up rejecting the academics and journalists who have tried to manipulate them. Furthermore the actual causes, for which there are in fact reasoned, non-propagandistic arguments, end up being tarnished by association. When people automatically discount what is said by a journalist or a professor, the culture has a real problem. Because it is often--although not universally--the case that journalists and professors actually do have a greater depth of knowledge in their specialities than do members of the general public. In these cases it is worth listening to what they (we) have to say. But if you abuse your position of trust too much, no one will believe you even when there actually is a crisis and when you (we) are telling an important truth.

No comments: