The New Academic Celebrity

There’s a decent, much-discussed piece in The Chronicle (“The New Academic Celebrity“) that discusses the increasing Kardashianization of public intellectuals (ala TED talks and the like.) Think (ironically) Stanley Fish, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Sandel,l Cornel West, etc.

In a famous essay, “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos,” first published in the early 90s, the literary scholar Stanley Fish wrote that “the flourishing of the lecture circuit has brought with it new sources of extra income … [and] an ever-growing list of stages on which to showcase one’s talents, and geometric increase in the availability of the commodities for which academics yearn, attention, applause, fame, and ultimately, adulation of a kind usually reserved for the icons of popular culture.” Fish was Exhibit A among professors taking advantage of such trends, and his trailblazing as a lit-crit celebrity inspired the dapper, globe-trotting lit-theory operator Morris Zapp, a character in David Lodge’s academic satire Small World. But the world Fish was describing, where no one could live-tweet the lectures, let alone post the talks for worldwide distribution, now seems sepia-toned.

“If David Lodge’s Morris Zapp were alive and kicking today,” observes John Holbo, an associate professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, and blogger at Crooked Timber and the Valve, “he’d be giving a TED talk, not an MLA talk. Which is to say: He wouldn’t be doing Theory. He probably wouldn’t be in an English department.”

I’m glad to see some of the figures mentioned in the piece receive TED-level attention (e.g., David Chalmers, Shelly Kagan, Niall Ferguson), but the trend as a whole (in our ‘life-hacking’ epoch) is somewhat depressing.

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