Click the Boats
Notes on Intelligence, Merit, and the Future of Work
New feature: please see the bottom of this essayletter for some important announcements and housekeeping.
A few weeks ago I served, as I sometimes do, on a dissertation-defense committee at a certain venerable Old World university. The event took place in a building whose foundations date to the thirteenth century, in a specialized “salle de soutenance” constructed in the nineteenth. The defendant was made to sit at a small desk beneath a looming podium, where we, the honorable members of the jury, were solemnly seated. The borrowed vocabulary from the world of the criminal trial is intentional and unmistakable. As usual I tried to play my part and look as grim and serious as possible. I confess I find it fairly easy, at least for a short time, to get swept up by the spirit of such rituals.
The dissertation itself was excellent. The student, a non-European, jumped right to the chase and gave a formidable account of the finer connotations of the Latin philosophical terms at the heart of his work. It was stunning no-bullshit scholarship — the raison d’être of universities for a millennium or so and right up until the most recent decade, and that still persists in certain protected pockets of Europe.
But neither can it be denied that even here, in this pocket, the vibe of the whole affair was rather like that of, say, a baroque chamber ensemble that insists on playing period instruments. We were, in effect, LARPing, pretending to be scholars from back in the ancien régime, when such endeavors were a secure and meaningful part of our shared social reality.
Or at least I was LARPing. My French colleagues, relatively insulated by a protectionist state that has forestalled the collapse of culture perhaps by a few decades through top-down and heavy-handed measures (e.g., protecting certain storefronts for a limited range of culturally valuable functions such as bookstores, rather than, say, pest-control or check-cashing), might well still be taking these rituals for reality itself. Yet even here, on the Île-de-France Culture Reserve, it cannot but seem a bit strained to anyone half-awake to the world beyond the horizon of the boulevard St. Michel. I mean, we received our convocations to the event by postal mail. Who needs that, in the present age? If we wanted to go for a more comprehensive LARP, we might also have committed to shaving ourselves with straight razors before setting out to the defense by velocipede, much as I hear some of the more hardcore of the Shinjuku Victorian cosplayers do.
I will go even further and say that pretty much everyone who still has a job that is not that of a first-responder, an infrastructure maintenance worker, or a food-deliverer, is LARPing. Or rather, we do have jobs, but these jobs are not what we think they are. Since the transition to “distance work” a year ago it is growing ever clearer that the true job of all of us, now, is to be milked for data by the provisioners of online content. If we are among the fortunate few, this job is subventioned by a complicated system of financial routing that passes through institutions like universities or museums. But that’s mostly just a vestige now, a skeuomorphism, like the fake wood paneling on the side of a station wagon, or the Microsoft Word paperclip that cannot in fact be used on paper.
What we do now, mostly, is update our passwords, guess at security questions, click on images that look like boats. We are trainers of AI and watchers of targeted ads. The mesh between our ancien-régime job-tasks and our new service to big data is so inextricable as to make any idea of opting out a pure fantasy. Every time I log in to Zoom to teach, for example, I have to go through my Facebook account to do it; I’m told there’s another way, but like everyone I have limited time and cognitive resources to find it.
Of course I will not say the pandemic was planned, but I will say that once it happened it was seized upon opportunistically to transition humanity into this new work arrangement much more abruptly than would otherwise have been possible, and at this point the restrictions on our mobility can no longer fully be accounted for by any epidemiological rationale. Whatever happens with the various strains of the virus and the various brands of vaccine and the various roll-out plans, there is simply no going back. One way or another, and with exceptions here and there, a way will be found to make the stay-at-home order endure in perpetuity. What this means for the future of work is perhaps the most pressing question of our era.
For the first fifteen years or so of my career, I took it for granted that what I was doing was both legitimate and well-defined, specialized in a way commensurate with the needs of society, and compensated by a salary commensurate with my contributions. Now I am struck by how little what I do differs from what hundreds of millions of other people do, all of whom are nominally in very different lines of work. We’re all just clicking on boats now.
I consider myself lucky to be one of those people who gets a monthly deposit in my bank account for all this clicking, and I have come to believe that some sort of universal basic income should be provided to everyone else who does not currently have this same luck. Nor do I feel altogether certain that my own arrangement can continue indefinitely, and so as I click I find myself always thinking about ways that I might get this great wealth-producing engine of the internet to channel more of its riches my way.
Ideally things would not have turned out this way. If I had started my career in 1970 I could have reached retirement age without ever seriously questioning the legitimacy of my form of life. I am grateful, I suppose, that I remain free to LARP, whether in Victorian regalia or philosophers’ robes. But sometimes I worry that it is too rosy a description even to call it LARPing, which still implies the creative indulgence of a fantasy about how the world might be, and bespeaks the hopefulness of an imagination in free play. In my more pessimistic moments I feel rather more as if those of us still wrapped up in the archaic ceremonies of the ancien régime are much like the loyal butlers on some noble estate after the country has been occupied by the Prussian army. The officers are drinking up all the port, and the count and countess have gone into exile, and we just keep polishing the silver because we don’t know what else to do.
Do I deserve my monthly bank deposit? It is true that much of my clicking eventually brings me through to a venue in which I speak to young people about Aristotle and Kant, and it required significant efforts on my part, under the ancien régime, to come to be able to do this. It is true that I have a Ph.D., though it seems to me that if there were any justice the degree would have expired long ago, and I would have had to go get it renewed like a driver’s license. But still, at least one of the voices in my head whispers, I worked hard, and it is right and fitting that I should be recognized and recompensed.
That voice, when it comes, is making its own small contribution to the never-ending debate over “meritocracy”. I’ve mostly stayed out of this debate, all the endless discussion in the United States about standardized tests and college-admissions and related matters. I confess it’s not the most exciting topic for me, and if I turn to it now this is because I see it as the surface crust one must pick through in order to arrive at a mantle of questions of at least midlevel philosophical interest.
It’s clear enough anyhow that a straightforward all-or-nothing examination system, as in republican France or imperial China, is preferable to the twisted jumble of expectations in the failed meritocracy of America, which leads even wealthy television actresses like Felicity Huffman to bribe their children’s Serbian water-polo coaches (am I getting this right?), and privileged high-school seniors to pretend to start NGOs from scratch to fight climate change or global poverty.
Far better to just have a single test with some questions about the different kinds of triangle and the synonyms of “tyro” and so on. There needs to be some way to filter the general population in order to fill the limited number of spots in the functionary class (or the “PMC”, as some Americans are calling it), and a test that is in principle open to anyone seems better than a system of patronage, corruption, and inheritance of cultural privilege. In ancient China young men from around the empire would practice for the big test, some of them showing off their ability to “back the book”, that is, to recite the entire content of some test-prep text with their backs turned to it. What such efforts demonstrate, obviously, is not intelligence, but rather commitment to the life goal of becoming a clerk, which indeed seems worth rewarding. Society is built, in the end, on just so many “A’s for effort”.
Unlike many other people who believe that some degree of social stratification is inevitable, perhaps even desirable (at least faute-de-mieux, given the undesirable effects of any overly ambitious program of egalitarization), it should be clear by now that I do not believe intelligence can or does play any role in this. But this in turn follows from my commitment to the much more general view that we have no coherent idea at all of what intelligence is.
I take it that when we revert to talk of this mental faculty, we are unconsciously grasping for an ersatz term to do the work once done by the now-banished rational soul. Intelligence is an inherently non-naturalistic notion; if you are a naturalist, there simply is no meaningful sense in which you may say that a philosophy professor is “more intelligent” than a chimpanzee, or indeed than a fish or a plant. All of these life forms are, simply, fit, which is to say adapted to whatever challenges the environment throws their way. Evolving a large neocortex and running around on two legs is one such successful adaptation; putting down roots and evolving a ramified structure, which enables you to have 95% of your body eaten by mountain goats and still survive, is another. In fact, from a certain point of view that’s an exceptionally “intelligent” arrangement, which may in part explain why, on the earth’s surface, plants weigh 225 times more than all animals combined.
Intelligence, I mean, is nothing but a prejudice, a will-o’-the-wisp and a je-ne-sais-quoi. Within our own species, I generally find that our willingness to call a person “intelligent” is highly circumstantial, and if we try to isolate the behavioral trait that gives the appearance of intelligence, it is generally something like a single-minded focus. I notice that whenever I myself have been called intelligent, this is generally in virtue of something that I experience from my own first-person point of view much more as obstinacy. When I was in tenth grade I did virtually nothing for the entire academic year but stare at maps; when there were no maps around, I envisioned them in my mind. I sat in geometry class and thought up new systems of mapping the cities of Brazil, say, to the cities of Canada —Recife to Winnipeg, for example, or Manaus to Yellowknife—, or mapping Californian cities to German ones —Irvine to Bochum, Riverside to Wuppertal—, based on instinctive and synaesthetic criteria that I alone knew and would never think to explain to anyone. Correspondingly I had absolutely no idea what my geometry teacher was saying, and I received 0’s on almost all my tests and assignments.
I was deemed, on this and many other occasions, to be slow in the head, but it is this same cartographic imagination that would later often win me praise for my “intelligence”. People like to tell me I’m “good at languages”, but I’m not really. I know plenty of people who speak more languages than I do, and far better. What I am is interested in languages, in much the same way I used to be interested in maps. I like to think about them, it comforts me and orients me to do so. Why did things work out that way? I don’t know. Probably for the same reason baby geese get faces imprinted in their little brains. We all get something or other imprinted on us, and we make our way forward from there, pursuing things that are variously valued or condemned by others; we are variously praised or blamed for our manner of being, all of us more or less ignorant of who we are, where we are headed, or why.
The phantom of intelligence haunts philosophers, even the self-styled naturalists among them, with particular insistence. I was recently struck (i.e., rendered disconsolate) by a passage I read in Thomas Nagel, commenting on an “awkward question” posed by Bernard Williams:
What is the point of doing philosophy if you are not extraordinarily good at it? The problem is that you cannot, by sheer hard work, like a historian of modest gifts, make solid discoveries that others can then rely on in building up larger results. If you are not extraordinary, what you do in philosophy will be either unoriginal (and therefore unnecessary) or inadequately supported (and therefore useless). More likely, it will be both unoriginal and wrong.
I admire Williams a great deal (Nagel rather less), but I have to confess that no conception of philosophy could possibly be more foreign to me than this one. I am certain that whatever it is I have been doing under the banner of “philosophy” has nothing in common with the project these two are describing.
This might mean that I am not in fact a philosopher, or that it is precisely people like me that Williams and Nagel have in mind when they advise all but a few to even bother to attempt to “do philosophy” (incidentally, I hate that dull Anglo-American phrase, for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere; I would prefer to render a newfound respectability to the old verbal form, “to philosophize”). I can report, anyhow, that every enduring philosophical commitment I’ve ever had has been, in different times and places, variously received as “brilliant”, “bizarre”, “banal”, or “confused”, depending on the circumstances of its articulation — notably, depending on my perceived authority at the moment of its articulation.
This makes me think that talk of who is “good at” philosophy is for people who have mistaken the project for something akin to a sport, as when NYU or Rutgers “hires up the best talent” as if it were the NBA we were speaking of, as if intelligence were like height or speed, as if this talent could be measured in the same way sports fans follow their favorite players’ stats. I’m happy to not have any of that undignified zeal for philosophy of Nagel, Williams, and the other philosophy boys with their trading cards; I would remove myself even further if I could.
Anyhow I believe these men are only giving voice to a dumb prejudice about philosophy that pervades our culture as a whole under the name of “intelligence”. So my view is by one measure much more radical than that of, say, Freddie deBoer, who insists we must overcome the “cult of smart”, while still presuming that smartness is a real trait of human beings just like height or eye color; and it is at the same time much more conservative, as I tend to believe the system of meritocratic filtration should be preserved in at least some form. It is just that I think getting through this filter in fact should only ever require interest and determination, not any innately superior mental capacity. It is good for society to stage contests that enable people, especially young people, to concentrate and to hone their efforts, and in so doing to come to commit to some particular life mission rather than another.
Any just meritocracy will be equally open to all people who have the requisite interest and determination, and will block efforts of the elite to game the system. It is likely that all meritocracies have an innate tendency to degenerate into games that lend advantage to those who are coming from a privileged background, whose parents are in a position to bribe the water-polo coach and so on. In the present cultural moment, however, we are not only seeing degeneration, but also significant contortions and a general crisis of legitimacy, which may, however worrisome it all is, also be instructive in offering an unusually clear glimpse of the real workings of “intelligence”.
What I mean by this is that it is increasingly clear that the main requirements for entry into the cultural elite are no longer the signs of what people once naively called “intelligence”, in the sense of knowing what “tyro” means or how an isosceles triangle differs from a scalene. Rather, the requirements involve principally a mastery of a certain number of social cues or shibboleths that have only recently been stipulated into existence. “Thinking well” has rapidly given way to “right thinking”: the intelligent person is unmasked as a mere bien-pensant.
Like many ambitious people, I have successfully inserted myself into many elite cultural spaces over the years, in particular those spaces that are understood to affirm and to validate the intelligence of the people admitted to them. In my more foolish moments I have indeed believed that my presence in them was confirmation of my intelligence, though in retrospect it’s clear it was seldom anything more than a confirmation of my vanity. Like everyone, I am always in dialogue not just with my contemporaries, but with the past as well, and just like Napoleon who, as he was being enthroned as emperor, supposedly leaned over to his brother and said something like, “If only dad could see us now”, so too I win my prizes and fellowships in part with my high-school geometry teacher and her ilk in mind, and I think as I am receiving them: “Not so slow in the head after all, hey?” Of course it’s not her fault I didn’t pay attention, and in fact it was rude of me not to do so, but I am shaped by the ghosts of my past just like any human being. I can’t help it.
It has come to seem to me recently that it’s easier to make sense of what I am doing in elite cultural spaces in imagined dialogue with my high-school teachers than in real dialogue with the other people I encounter in those spaces. In part this is because the passwords for the portals of entry to the cultural elite are now being updated with alarming frequency, and to try to keep up with them feels little different than trying to find the boats, or to remember whom I had previously identified as my “best friend in elementary school” in the online security questions of my bank.
For example, all of a sudden my old friends in elite American institutions have begun appearing on Zoom with “he/him” or “she/they” next to their names. Such an addition is both beyond my technical competence, and, more importantly, beyond any conception of social ontology that I am able to comprehend. I know many people think this is a trivial issue, and that only an obstinate culture-warrior would dwell on it. But it is not trivial to compel someone to claim of themselves something they do not even understand, as a condition of their continued good-standing in the cultural elite. And so I come out looking like a troglodyte —a term that involves both moral condemnation and a judgment of intelligence, a failure to think well and a failure to be a right-thinker— simply because I remain true to my conscience, which requires me to try to present myself honestly to others. Part of that honesty involves, for me, acknowledging the obviousness of the fact that, like it or not, I was born a biological male — I don’t particularly like it, in fact, but at the same time it’s just part of what Heidegger would call my “thrownness” in this world, and facing up to that thrownness is key to the basic ethical project of my life as I understand it. So sorry, friends, you’re just not getting any pronouns out of me, except perhaps for the interrogative kind: What? Why?
It is my suspicion, anyhow, and the principal thesis of the present essayletter, that the increasing pace with which the passwords are being updated is a symptom of the growing awareness that all the elite institutions of the ancien régime are increasingly the sites of mere LARPing. This growing awareness can easily cause a person to look back at their earlier pride in arriving within these institutions not just as vanity, but as part of a world that is now lost to all of us, whether we’ve fully grasped this yet or not.
As the power of institutions to legitimate a person’s belief in his or her own intelligence weakens, I fear that increasingly all they have left to function as a filtration system is the imposition of ever-changing passwords with which only the most dedicated will have the energy to keep up. For my part I can feel myself giving up, and in this I am very different from those currently locked into elite American institutions, who depend on them for their continuing prosperity. I’ve noticed in this connection that there is an increasingly wide array of background political commitments among the sort of elite academics who habitually deny that American humanities education is undergoing an enormous crisis. Some of them have a background in libertarianism, some of them are self-avowed socialists, but the one thing they all have in common is that they love their jobs, or at least need them, and express this need through a public performance of love.
As for me, I just want a bit of security and the freedom to speak my mind. For now, I am grateful to be working in one cultural-linguistic setting (France), and writing and commenting from afar about another (the United States), in the safety of exile. It may be that a combination of smart investing and Substack, or some other as-yet-unknown Substack-like venue, will be the best way to achieve that same goal in the future.
In elite cultural settings in the US, it is not only that the range of acceptable opinions is astoundingly narrow, but much more than that, the range of acceptable interests more or less ensures that speech remains reduced there to a recitation of in-the-know allusions and easy cultural identifiers. Increasingly, moreover, the collapse of cultural discourse into periodic password-updates is being hastened by the pressures of social media, where only a dozen or so things have ever proven to be compossible: electoral politics; the latest streaming content from Netflix and Amazon; a very small list of books, generated out of the right complex of zeitgeistlichness, PR savviness, and money; and, of course, race as the great monolithic structuring force of our world. This is a universe that no theodicy could ever justify, a far greater metaphysical misfire than one that contains, say, seven helium atoms and nothing else.
Just as much as believing the wrong things about, say, pronouns, showing a persistent desire to talk about things too far removed from this list is a surefire way to get yourself removed from elite spaces. One becomes a “contrarian” (as opposed to what? a conformist?) not only by believing the wrong things, but also by staring at maps, as it were, when one is supposed to be listening to the teacher — that is, by thinking out loud about the things one really cares about for inward inscrutable reasons, rather than adhering to the shared, official, public curriculum.
Even here, on Substack, in the space that is hoped by some to be (and condemned by others for being) an alternative to the structuring rules of elite cultural spaces, I find what we actually have is a sort of mirror of the concerns that reign in those spaces. I would like to write about Amazonian onomastics (in particular, the idea that proper names have souls), or the case system of Turkic languages, and instead I am constantly pulled back to the metacommentary on “the state of the discourse”.
It may be that the gravity of social media is so strong, as we are often reminded of black holes, that nothing, not even light, can escape it. Substack, by allowing itself to feed off of the same metrics that already govern Twitter and other venues, risks failing at its chance to become a true source of light.
Announcements and housekeeping
Last week, some readers will have noticed, was the first since August that I “left a rabbit”, as we say in French, not writing anything at all, not even recycling some old material.
I was busy preparing the text for the W. E. B. Du Bois virtual lecture, which I gave at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard. I enjoyed the event very much. In America, where increasingly institutions are just giving up and admitting that that country is and always has been an apartheid state, it is reassuring to find some pockets in which adults are able to speak freely without any concern to reinforce the boundaries between their identity groups. Skip Gates is a great and generous host, and is stimulating just the sort of conversations that are needed: the ones where we can acknowledge the full present weight of America’s violent legacies, without allowing this acknowledgment to degenerate into some dumb and pseudo-solemn ceremony. I would have posted the text of my talk as a Substack, either last week or this week, but I believe a video of it will soon appear on the Hutchins Center site, and I want it to be exclusive there, at least initially. So watch for it.
I also had a piece appear recently in the New Statesman about my quasi-crypto-not-quite-Catholicism, which may interest some readers. I expect to be writing more for this august magazine in the future.
On Tuesday evening, March 9, 6pm London time, I will be participating in a forum at the London School of Economics, along with Julia Ng and Jonathan Rée, on “Histories of Thinking”. We will be discussing this and that, and it is meant to be a spontaneous and thus an unpredictable conversation, but I am hoping to get in a few words about the history of the idea of “barbarian philosophy”, as it was developed in historiographies of philosophy before Hegel came along and conflated the project of philosophy with the unfolding of Absolute Spirit from within the boundaries of Prussia. It should be interesting, and you are warmly invited to attend.
Finally, Eilene Zimmerman interviewed me recently for a New York Times piece on “resilience”, which I believe is about to appear. She found me a good fit for the article because, she thought, it was “resilient” of me to go and start a Substack in the midst of a pandemic. I haven’t seen the piece, and I suspect it’s written with a different tone and sensibility than the one I am accustomed to here, but I know she’s right about one thing: Justin E. H. Smith, still youthful and trim at 48, bespectacled, quizzical, is eager to see his subscriber numbers continue to go up. Won’t you subscribe then, dear reader, if you have not done so already?