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A Culture of Fake Originality
December 23, 2012 10:19 AM   Subscribe

The fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception, to join in creating a fantasy world. He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil. Faking is a social activity in which people act together to draw a veil over unwanted realities and encourage each other in the exercise of their illusory powers. The arrival of fake thought and fake scholarship in our universities should not therefore be attributed to any explicit desire to deceive. It has come about through the complicit opening of territory to the propagation of nonsense. An essay by Roger Scruton from Aeon magazine.
posted by chavenet (57 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a seductive thesis, but I'm not convinced it's more than a get-off-my-lawn-ism. Accusing people whose output you don't like of insincerity is hardly original. If you wish to accuse derivative artists of something, accuse them of irrelevance.
posted by Zarkonnen at 10:34 AM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Could have been written by any conservative academic curmudgeon of the last 30 years, and has been more eloquently said by many.

Thanks for a waste of 10 minutes on Scruton's infantile whine tasting.
posted by spitbull at 10:41 AM on December 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


All of the fake outrage in the article's comments is mighty, mighty tasty.
posted by Twang at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2012


I only got a little ways through and found several examples of dishonest tactics that drive me up the wall: inaccurately summarizing someone's thinking, casual appeals to axiomatic common wisdom, putting things in scare quotes, and excerpting a difficult passage in order to make the author appear ridiculous. I stopped, as it seemed clear that any worthwhile point that might be made could not be worth the trouble of digging through the petty, unprincipled garbage.
posted by williampratt at 10:55 AM on December 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


I thought it was an interesting take. I found this bit to be key:

The most important way of clearing intellectual space for fake scholarship and culture is to marginalise the concept of truth. ... There is a way of debating that disregards the truth of another’s words, since it is concerned to diagnose them, to discover ‘where they are coming from’, and to reveal the emotional, moral and political attitudes that underlie a given choice of words.

In other words, debate for the purposes of winning, not for the purpose of discovering truth. I think this is a central problem today in political and public discourse; people are so entrenched in their positions that they would rather disregard truth than find it.

But the author's own arguments suffer from this same problem, and in the end it's just an old elitist rant against the new.

I am not a scholar, I am just an interested audience member who occasionally likes to heckle.

Also, he slagged Steve Reich, some of whose music has lifted me as much as does Bach, so he's just gotta be wrong.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:00 AM on December 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Harry Frankfurt has already provided us with an appropriate response [pdf] to this essay.
posted by fredludd at 11:02 AM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


"high culture is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people. High culture is a precarious achievement, and endures only if it is underpinned by a sense of tradition, and by a broad endorsement of the surrounding social norms"

Says Philosopher Roger Scruton.

Got half way through and gave up.
posted by marienbad at 11:03 AM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This guy is 60-something years old? I was expecting Ph.D. student at most.
posted by scose at 11:11 AM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


METAFILTER: I am not a scholar, I am just an interested audience member who occasionally likes to heckle.
posted by philip-random at 11:11 AM on December 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


thanks philip-random. Another life goal achieved.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:17 AM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's really too bad that the price for the world he longs for was so high, and that all the people who didn't get to share in its former glory still think opera, ballet, representational painting and the rest of the formerly fine arts are boring.
posted by illovich at 11:17 AM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


As soon as I saw the name Roger Scruton I knew I didn't need to bother RTFA. There are good points to be made about this general subject, but he's not going to make them.
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on December 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Oh need it be mentioned this right wing prig is headed for a visiting scholar position at the American Enterprise Institute?

White guys of a certain age get hard reading this stuff. Or they would if they could still get hard.
posted by spitbull at 11:29 AM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's really too bad that the price for the world he longs for was so high, and that all the people who didn't get to share in its former glory still think opera, ballet, representational painting and the rest of the formerly fine arts are boring.

I like the idea that there are a lot of people out there who think that representational painting in particular is boring, but not anything more contemporary. Maybe in the fever dreams of the Turner Prize judging panel our youth are sneering at the tediously mannered representationalism on show at the National Gallery and prefer the Tate Modern, but in reality the man on the street cares as much about art in general as they do about representational painting which is to say they do not care at all.

Also: I can't stand Roger Scruton, if only because of his attempts to whore himself out to the tobacco industry to do PR work. I don't know how that's supposed to be compatible with high culture. There is a magazine that they let Boris Johnson edit and even there they don't let Scruton do anything more taxing than write wine reviews.
posted by atrazine at 11:29 AM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a philosopher I think he is too harsh on art and too lax on philosophy. Duchamp and Cage started and ended and artistic movement, once whose corpse has refused to stop moving since their time. The criticism of contemporary art I agree with, but Duchamp and Cage and that first generation of postmodernists were brilliant and knew exactly what they were doing. As for the philosophy, I'm very sympathetic to his criticisms of the Marxist jargon that pervades cultural theory. Foucault and his ilk strike me as posturing cocks who are more interested in dazzling people with fancy linguistic tricks than actually getting any sort of point across. I can't criticize what they say in their writing because their writing is entirely impenetrable. Every time I've had a passage out of their books explained to me, all I could do was wonder why they hadn't just used regular language to express it, instead of the overflowing -ianisms and -icities and -alities that spill from every page. Certainly, analytic philosophy has its jargon, but there it's used similarly to how any field uses jargon. The Foucault/Derrida school seems to pull it out of the air and expect everyone to nod and smile and pretend to follow along.
posted by cthuljew at 11:31 AM on December 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Roger Scruton's antipathy to continental philosophy always blows my mind because writing like this typifies some of its worst tendencies. He might object to that characterization by pointing to the nominal clarity of his prose, but it's fake clarity in that it rests on a large body of assumptions that he's arrayed in such a way as to make his arguments trivially follow.* This is lazy, boring criticism.

I don't share that antipathy and I don't mean to say that all continental writing is like this, but it certainly happens.
posted by invitapriore at 11:35 AM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


The idea of justice, for instance, which sees the world in terms of rights and responsibilities and assigns ownership and obligations across society, was dismissed by early Marxists as a piece of bourgeois ‘ideology’.

Those must have been very early Marxists indeed. These days, the only people I hear talk about "justice" are die-hard lefties.
posted by escabeche at 11:43 AM on December 23, 2012


These days, the only people I hear talk about "justice" are die-hard lefties.

Oh, we talk about "justice" ... but only the fake stuff.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:49 AM on December 23, 2012


Wow, this is such a terrible essay. If you understand the history of musical and visual art at all, it's easy to notice that he characterizes much of modernism poorly and with his musical examples demonstrates a very shallow understanding of the composers/works he mentions, including obvious ones. (For instance, anyone who groups composers like Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg together to make a common point about musical art is obviously full of shit. Those composers, for one example, lived in different places and times and had noticeably different goals for their musical art, and their work is quite distinct from one another. Just because they all spoke German and wrote "classical" music doesn't mean their work shares common goals. And Schoenberg most definitely did not develop his serial method of composition because popular music had made the beauty of tonal chord progressions mundane....though I did giggle at Scruton's attempt to clumsily project his cultural values onto Schoenberg.)

I don't know Scruton's work outside of this (thankfully, if this is typical) but he's a poseur, pining for the glory days when originality and beauty and substance ruled the day, not like these kids with their shallow, populist bullshit.

(Aside from the get-off-my-lawn-ness of the whole thing, the real framing error he's making is that art should primarily be an aesthetic experience, and further that the aesthetic experiences it offers should be of a certain "desirable" class, e.g., aspiring to 'beauty' or 'truth'. SIGH. I would debunk this, but truly there are so many, better whole books that do it already. If you're reading, Mr. Scruton, as a music specialist I'll mention two that you would benefit tremendously from reading: Music Matters, by David Elliott, and The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, by Lydia Goehr.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:51 AM on December 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


If Scruton really wants to be relevant, let him level his criticisms at the fake intellectualism of eminent right-wing pseudointellects like Newt Gingrich. Granted, it's low hanging fruit, but no more so than what he's going after in this screed. Oh wait, that's right: he's not really championing authentic intellect so much as he's just shoring up his own cognitive bias.
posted by darkstar at 12:05 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this clever satire, i.e. lampooning fake intellectualism with fake intellectualism?

It reads better that way.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:14 PM on December 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yet culture is important. Without it we remain emotionally uneducated. There are consequences of fake culture that are comparable to the consequences of corruption in politics.

The post-modern is fake only because culture is just as fake, as a lie of learning and freedom, but that's not what he's saying. Culture is now a curious anthropological term that implies a fragile unit of humanity in danger of becoming irrelevant by domination, although this is usually by choice or progress. Culture has also become an odd replacement word for "civilization" which instantly fell out of favor after World War II and post-colonialism, because nobody trusts a self-destructing civilization, nor one that enslaves people as races. Less imposing for moral special forces is the relative concept of culture defined by its boundaries and predictable behavior, just wanting to be left alone. The problem is that culture is the dominant force of will that overtakes the individual inside of it. It is the fraud of knowledge that honors itself instead. It is often least educated because some patriarch, mullah or dictator doesn't approve of that either, at least for most of their people. On reflection, perhaps that's what he is obversely revealing.
posted by Brian B. at 12:19 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with cthuljew (though we're in the same field, fwiw). It is worth noting perhaps that the philosophers cthuljew mentions are most commonly read outside academic philosophy departments.

The participants in the Sokal hoax aftermath, including Sokal himself, did a much better job of what
Scruton is trying to do.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:19 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


mrgrimm: This did cross my mind. The article does the very thing it projects onto others...
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:24 PM on December 23, 2012


Jeff Koons remind anyone else of The Puck?
posted by Smedleyman at 12:26 PM on December 23, 2012


Hilton Kramer's soul mate. tsdr (too sick didn't read), actually i parsed it to see his examples or any sources he might have quoted. i suppose anyone whose way of thinking is the target of about 40 years of critical thinking would naturally not get it and might be inclined to react this way. also, it's ironic that he paraphrases Foucault ("...In Foucault’s view, all discourse gains acceptance by expressing, fortifying and concealing the power of those who maintain it...") as he is doing this very thing. but, i guess some people enjoy being middle class after all.

i couldn't get far enough to see if he takes on Derrida or Deleuze. all said and done though what i did read seems like an exercise in the definition of intersubjectivity.

his take on John Cage is pretty idiotic. never mind Black Mountain College and 60 some years of american culture. "...By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity..."; girl please.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 12:35 PM on December 23, 2012


It must be an anxious state of mind that inspires someone to devote pages to declaring why something is objectively true instead of simply acknowledging how they personally feel about a topic.
posted by yorick at 1:36 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


his take on John Cage is pretty idiotic.

I mean if you dismiss absolutely everything Cage ever did based on a misunderstanding of one piece of his, what exactly am I supposed to do with you?
posted by shakespeherian at 1:43 PM on December 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


The participants in the Sokal hoax aftermath, including Sokal himself, did a much better job of what Scruton is trying to do.

Yeah, this. In addition to the Hoax itself, Fashionable Nonsense by Bricmont and Sokal also puts forth a much stronger argument about a similar cloud of issues. Scruton seems too grumpy, halfway-informed, and generally unwilling to go toe-to-toe with his nemeses. Say what you will about Sokal, at least he tried to do his homework.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:59 PM on December 23, 2012


Reading that made me want to strip naked, cover my body in paint, and throw myself repeatedly against Roger Scruton.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:28 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


The same phenomenon can be discerned in music, with the repeated figures based on simple tonal chords that we find in Philip Glass and, to some extent, Steve Reich. In response to the argument that the triad is a cliché, such composers take hold of the triad and repeat it until you can be sure that they are aware that it is a cliché, and that they have put quotation marks around that very awareness.

considering the high influence of other civilizations' music on these two composers, which is where they got the idea of "repeating the triad", this is a high culturally illiterate statement
posted by pyramid termite at 3:14 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe in the fever dreams of the Turner Prize judging panel our youth are sneering at the tediously mannered representationalism on show at the National Gallery and prefer the Tate Modern, but in reality the man on the street cares as much about art in general as they do about representational painting which is to say they do not care at all.

Yes, among the many ridiculous ironies of his position is the fact that the fans of John Cage he rails against are far more likely to appreciate and support the art he loves -- Bach, Beethoven, Wagner -- than the vast majority of people in this country.
posted by straight at 3:36 PM on December 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


It must be an anxious state of mind that inspires someone to devote pages to declaring why something is objectively true instead of simply acknowledging how they personally feel about a topic.

No exaggeration, you just explained so much of American public discourse to me (especially of the political variety).
posted by LooseFilter at 3:53 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


He is musicologically illiterate, period.
posted by spitbull at 3:55 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


>this is a high culturally illiterate statement

Not to mention just plain ignorant, in that he completely misunderstands why Glass and Reich repeat triads in the first place. (Really, 5-10 minutes of homework reading this simple, straight-forward essay by Reich himself would have enlightened Scruton greatly.)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:56 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


(or what spitbull just said)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:56 PM on December 23, 2012


The days of great cranks are behind us. Now we just have one-trick ideologues. Sigh.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:30 PM on December 23, 2012


Crist, there is so much about this that is just plain stupid. Every paragraph had me yelling at the screen.

Wait, wait. The entire essay seems to predicate that the idea of people using the abstruse language of scholarship to cover for not having any intellectual relation to their subject is a pernicious evil. Then he uses examples of art and music that he clearly knows nothing about and hasn't taken the time to investigate.

Is this some sort of high-culture trolling?
posted by lumpenprole at 4:46 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Personally I've not taken Scruton seriously as a philosopher for well over twenty years - he had a television programme where he explained without any irony that if we breed horses and dogs for the qualities we want, why not breed people (presumably for qualities such as Europeanness and a tendency to vote Conservative)?

Yes, Roger, we enthusastically bred dogs and managed to come up with the Chihuahua. Think before you open your mouth, there's a good chap.

He's a philosopher in the same way that Niall Ferguson is a historian - he's somehow got the job description and uses it to repeat the prejudices of his paymasters, flattering them into thinking what they believe isn't, somehow, ludicrous.

It's not trolling, it's not parody and it's definitely not ironic. He really is that stupid.
posted by Grangousier at 4:48 PM on December 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Typically they start with the sky-is-falling argument in the title and opening, how nice of the author to finally show what he really thinks in the last two paragraphs.
posted by polymodus at 5:14 PM on December 23, 2012


Brian B: "Culture is now a curious anthropological term that implies a fragile unit of humanity in danger of becoming irrelevant by domination, although this is usually by choice or progress. Culture has also become an odd replacement word for "civilization" which instantly fell out of favor after World War II and post-colonialism, because nobody trusts a self-destructing civilization, nor one that enslaves people as races."

Well, I agree with you - but I think there is a Foucaldian argument to be made here about competing knowledges on Scruton's behalf - essentially, that you can see the sum-total of post-modern criticism/post-colonial critique/blame America first -- whatever you want to call it -- as a point of almost mystical enlightenment, akin to buddhist ideologies about reality being a myth (they're basically the same, from that point of view - substitute Eurocentric supremacist ideas for samsara, and the post-modern philosophical mind space as enlightenment).

To lazily default to the language of the Matrix, Scruton is clearly in the camp of people who take the blue pill without hesitation or second thought - fully aware that rooting your basic vision of reality in a self-validating framework and accepting that as universally true on faith is infinitely less problematic on an ongoing basis than accepting on faith that much if not all of what constitutes "reality" is arbitrary or even illusory.
posted by illovich at 6:12 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


In retrospect, I want to admit that I have some sympathy for the ideas Scruton puts out - I just disagree with his conclusions about (and in many cases his analysis of) the fine arts.

In addition, I found which po-mo saints he takes, and which he leaves kind of fascinating-- the biggest surprise for me is his clear respect for Foucault, even if he wrongly summarizes "Foucault’s approach [as reducing] culture to a power-game."

I'll reserve judgement on the statement "[Marxism] is tied to socio-economic hypotheses that are no longer believable" until I know which hypotheses he's referencing.
posted by illovich at 6:19 PM on December 23, 2012


O wow, I love me a conservative screed. But this one didn't really hit the spot. To argue that theory is a black hole and modern art is a sham... I mean we've been there and back. Neither of those things is going to destroy civilization. What will destroy it is cavalier war-making, the destruction of natural beauty, and the commoditization of human affairs. Come on, conservatismists. Leave the academics and the artists out of this. They're mostly broke and their labor has been appropriated by business. They didn't win. Look closer.
posted by deo rei at 7:05 PM on December 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I tried to read it, but due to a defect in my browser all I heard in my mind were prolonged fart noises--which as a musician influenced by Cage among others, I found to be oddly compelling.
posted by daisystomper at 8:49 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The days of great cranks are behind us. Now we just have one-trick ideologues. Sigh.

Barzun may have died, but Bloom is still blathering.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:04 PM on December 23, 2012


Not sure about the Althusser quote, but the Lacan one is very poorly chosen since it is quite straightforward. I'm just an amateur reading books at home with no formal education in continental philosophy, and I could easily explain it to someone who knew nothing.

Those guys can be challenging to read sometimes, but people like Roger Scruton love to exaggerate it, probably because they think they are too smart to start with the basics.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:51 PM on December 23, 2012


In other words, debate for the purposes of winning, not for the purpose of discovering truth. I think this is a central problem today in political and public discourse; people are so entrenched in their positions that they would rather disregard truth than find it.

Well, I mean, isn't this where the recursive nightmare begins? How do we define "truth". Even "fact" can be open to interpretation depending on the viewer - and with complete honesty; some of the more recent studies on perception have shown that we really can observe the same thing, perceive something different, and then remember something else entirely. When we remember, we can over-write. If our own studies and evidence are pointing to replicable, predictable failures in perception and memory, where can we even start in determining something like truth?

I'll agree that to me, debate for the purpose of winning rhetorical points feels very different from debate for the purpose of increasing understanding, but I've seen times where my debate for the purpose of increasing understanding was perceived and reacted to by others as debate for the purpose of winning. In cases like that, who decides? Some arbitrary outsider designated as impartial? How do we determine disintrest?

I know what several of my truths are, but I've been told by others, others I like and respect, that several of my truths are delusion. I can't in all honesty disprove them; my truths are axiomic, not evidence based, and axiomic things are by their very definition a priori assumed true.
posted by Deoridhe at 9:59 PM on December 23, 2012


Not sure about the Althusser quote, but the Lacan one is very poorly chosen since it is quite straightforward. I'm just an amateur reading books at home with no formal education in continental philosophy, and I could easily explain it to someone who knew nothing.

Challenge accepted, because that stuff just looks like word salad to me.
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:10 AM on December 24, 2012


Would it be a shallow, anti-intellectual manoeuvre to point out that Scruton's column in the Financial Times was cancelled after revelations of his eagerness to promote the interests of the tobacco industry, for cash?
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:44 AM on December 24, 2012


Would it be a shallow, anti-intellectual manoeuvre

I don't believe so. When someone is banging on about high-minded virtue and moral seriousness, it's pertinent to point out that their trousers are around their ankles.
posted by Wolof at 4:14 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody reads Althusser or Lacan any more. Hell, we barely read Foucault, and then out of historical interest, like Adorno.

I was raised on post-colonial postmodern critical theory, and yet my work is almost entirely oriented to practical effects. You know things are crazy when someone who practically memorized Derrida is funded by the NSF, huh?

Scruton is afraid of ideas he is too old and ignorant to understand. Most of us who do science and not philosophy are so over these stupid debates. They smell like grandfather's closet.
posted by spitbull at 9:31 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, Scruton's corruption goes to illustrate one of conservatism's most persuasive tenets, that man is lecherous beast if not kept checked and bound. By proving the point, Scruton's just keeping it real.
posted by deo rei at 9:32 AM on December 24, 2012


He's right -- and it scares neomaniacs.
posted by temporicide at 9:36 AM on December 24, 2012


Right about what? Please specify.
posted by spitbull at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2012


Challenge accepted, because that stuff just looks like word salad to me.

OK:
it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports.
If you look up a word in the dictionary, it is never fully defined by itself. It always refers to other words for its meaning. People are the same way. We have a sense of undefined-ness, incompleteness, and develop feelings of love or desire towards people and things that we hope will make us feel complete. We become this way when we start to use language.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:44 PM on December 24, 2012


You know things are crazy when someone who practically memorized Derrida

If you memorised Spivak's absolutely awful translations, my sympathies.
posted by Wolof at 11:18 PM on December 24, 2012


Roger Scruton was, allegedly, Margaret Thatcher's favourite philosopher. (Before she lost her marbles.)

I think that says it all.

Summary: TL:DR.
posted by cstross at 6:00 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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