Ari's critique / Uncategorized

Opinionology and intellectual labour


But the more philosophy comes up against shameless and inane rivals and encounters them at its very core, the more it feels driven to fulfil the task of creating concepts that are aerolites rather than commercial products. It gets the giggles, which wipe away its tears. (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? p.11)

If history has taught us anything it is that Homo sapiens are incapable of conclusively explaining past events and are even more limited when it comes to predicting the future. They are also prone to forgetting such limitations. Thus, when an event captures as much media attention as the recent Paris attacks, the opinionologists inevitably come out of the woodwork and inundate us with their inane babble.

A few weeks ago I was watching a TV debate (something like a Spanish Q&A) on the attacks in Paris and what needed to be done. Opinionology central. It wasn’t so much the grotesque explanations, justifications and speculations that were being put forward that I found troubling but rather the make-up of the panel itself. Firstly, and completely unsurprisingly, of the six panel members there were no females. Secondly, one of the panelists (which is quite a lot in my experience) was an academic and an ‘expert’ on Middle-Eastern politics. The expectations placed on the ‘expert’ by his fellow panelists clearly illustrated the academic struggle for relevance in this format. Opinionology and soundbites are far more highly valued than the vagaries of intellectual labour. Intellectual labour offers (the search for) knowledge without solutions whilst opinionology offers solutions without knowledge. Hence the make-up of the panel. ‘Mansplaining’ is highly valued.

If you aren’t sure what opinionology is you may find the video below illustrative.  In it a panel of white Australians discuss whether or not people should be offended by the term “negro”. Former Labour leader come opinionologist Mark Latham’s contribution is particularly nefarious.

So, is this post going to degenerate into (yet another) lament about why the ignorant public led by a media conspiracy is unable to grasp our profound insight? Should we gaze back nostalgically at an imaginary time in which academics were respected members of the community? Whilst my take on this inevitably draws partially on these laments (there you go there is some wanky academic ambiguity for you) I think it is important to steer away from them. At the same time I think it is important to resist the becoming opinionologist of the academic. There are plenty of examples of academics that have gained a public voice. Unfortunately this usually occurs when they conform to opinionology. The academic come opinionologist becomes the everythingologist that somehow believes they can talk about anything and everything. Thus the likes of Hugh White (see video below) feel legitimated to explain any aspect of International Politics. In the video White, an expert in Australia strategic defense policy, speculates on the conflict in Syria despite demonstrating next to no understanding of the complexities of the region.

The question is what can critically minded academics do? Following the Paris attacks there have been a number of interventions that are worth looking at. Possibly the most catastrophic of such interventions is Slavoj Zizek’s drivel about the incompatibility of Islam and our superior radical Western values. Zizek is the clearest example of a critical academic who maintains the form of opinionology in order to forward (what he considers) a radical critique. In doing so he maintains all the brashness and brainlessness of the mansplain. Such an approach does however have a crowd, particularly among those who share the message he is putting forward. Nevertheless this message reversal does not challenge the reduction of detail ―the mind-numbing simplicity of right versus wrong (picture me banging my head against the wall whilst reading Zizek’s piece). Zizek in this sense is much the same as other self-proclaimed leftist opiniologists. Certain academics have been able to garner a band of supporters by forwarding the opinion that such attacks are simply the logical result of Western foreign policy. Such idiotic simplifications come from the same shop as “the USA invaded Iraq for oil” (me banging my head on the table this time).

So what else can we do? How can what we do ―our intellectual labour― be presented in a way that is accessible and attractive to the wider community ―they are funding us after all― but at the same time not reproduce the stupidity of opinionology? I don’t have an answer to such a complex question (typical) but I have come across a few contributions in the wake of the attacks that I feel point in the right direction. In contrast to Zizek’s rash jumping to conclusions I found Ghassan Hage and Judith Butler’s commentaries refreshing. Hage brings the impact of such attacks back to Australia by exploring how the mourning of the Paris attacks, and the failure to do the same for attacks in Lebanon ―despite the important Lebanese-Australian community― reproduces a fantasy of a White Nation. Thus he pushes us to ask how the mourning of these attacks in countries like Australia contribute to the alienation of Arabs and Muslims. Butler on the other hands avoids jumping to conclusions. She states:

“this will take some time to think through.  It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time …”

It is this thinking through, that Hage and Butler approach in different ways, that is what academics can offer. How can we make this thinking through accessible and attractive? I have a feeling that the problem isn’t so much the work we do but rather the way that it is presented. It doesn’t have to be opiniology or finished knowledge for people to get it. Blogging offers possibilities. However, as my own blog posts demonstrate, blogging carries with it the danger of degeneration into opinionology. Luckily my fellow bloggers on the are far more resistant to unleashing a good ol’ mansplain than I am.


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