Academics go from classroom to the charts

There’s a fitting line on Cornel West’s first CD, “Sketches of My Culture”: “The aspiration of every human being is to have his path made clear.” As we all know, West’s path has led to Princeton after a protracted public battle with Harvard’s president, Larry Summers. Accused of substandard scholarship after the release of the CD, West bitterly left the university and set off a wave of boring diatribes — some racist, some not — in the conservative press. To quote one of West’s songs, “What a story, what a drama!”

Enough has been written of the dispute (too acrimonious by half) and the CD (not a masterpiece). What’s less analyzed here is the press. For West is the most famous of a group of scholars who have lately reinvented themselves as celebrities. The professor might not be walking around Harvard Yard anymore, but at least he’s shilling his books on music television and appearing on Tavis Smiley’s talk show. Indeed, West, even if he has maintained that his taste is “more Aretha than Jay-Z,” has been spotted hanging out with P. Diddy and his crew in a New York nightclub. I don’t think anyone in the economics department has it that good.

At least West’s CD was a nominal outgrowth of his scholarship. Imagine how Summers might have reacted if he had gone as far as Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian theorist whose sparkling writings range from Leninist political thought to Lacanian analyses of Jim Carrey movies. Having taught both in his own country and abroad, Zizek has continued to write dense and gleefully disorganized books while also publishing in the mass media. His essays in the London Review of Books have won him a wide following and have tapped into an audience of smart non-specialists who want a simpler version of the Master of Ljubljana. And Zizek has been more than happy to oblige.

Zizek has won himself such a broad audience that he was approached by Abercrombie and Fitch to write copy for its unashamedly homoerotic clothing catalogue. You might balk at the idea of a Marxist philosopher selling polo shirts, but Zizek understood it as only the next facet of his at best pluralist, at worst contradictory, career. So, next to a Bruce Weber photograph of two hunks in bed with a blonde, we get this: “Does this constellation not merely explicate the fact that, while a man cheats his feminine partner with another real woman, a woman can cheat a man even if she makes love only with him, since her pleasure is never fully contained in enjoying him?”

Zizek has admitted to the Boston Globe that the writing for the Abercrombie catalogue is theoretically barren — and that he wrote the copy in 10 minutes. But he is undaunted. “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post — I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!”

The academic celebrity is not a new phenomenon, of course. John Ruskin had his lecture tours and Carl Sagan had his TV specials. But lately academics have been integrating themselves into the celebrity universe in ever more desperate ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in IBM’s recent advertising. Print ads for one of their laptops ask, “Where do you do your best thinking?” The answer, of course, is not the Sterling reading room, but rather, short and meaningless pronouncements meant to scare the readers into some kind of intellectual reverence. (Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector answered, “Somewhere between surrealism and neo-cubo-futurism,” and props to anyone who can tell this art history major what that means.)

Indeed, a bunch of these intellectuals have gathered for a new television spot, hawking IBM’s open-source operating system. In this travesty, a discomfortingly Aryan boy genius sits in a Saarinen chair and hears the wisdom of the ages from a fawning coterie. If you were waiting for Columbia economist Sylvia Nasar to share the spotlight with Muhammad Ali, here is your chance. And don’t leave before you get to hear eminent historian and former West colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr., pervert leftist thought to sell you computer software. “Collecting data is only the first step toward wisdom,” he says in his gentlest professorial tone, “but sharing data is the first step toward community.” Remember that, comrades, the next time you’re at Circuit City.

What with all these academics edging ever more onto their turf, it’s only natural that the real celebrities should fight back. And indeed we now have the dialectical opposite of academics as celebrities: celebrities as academics. If every phenomenon gives rise to its opposite, then it’s only natural that with West and Zizek we now have Al Gore at Columbia and Oprah Winfrey teaching at Northwestern. Winfrey’s class, called “The Dynamics of Leadership,” is shrouded in secrecy. No word yet on whether audience members — excuse me, I mean students — high-five their professor as she walks in or find free copies of books under their seats.

Is any of this a problem, a conflict of interest, or even newsworthy? People willingly make themselves into simulacra all the time, as anyone who was a “slutty angel” on Halloween will remind you. And while we might want to think that scholars as brilliant as West or Zizek would be impervious to the allure of celebrity, we might also admit to ourselves that we’re having a great time watching and can barely wait for what’s next. The Judith Butler infomercial? The Alain Badiou reality show? The possibilities are endless.



Jason Farago is a junior in Silliman College.

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