On the other hand, I find particularly disturbing this growing trend of forgetting that media celebrity and fame are simply not sufficient evidence of quality and importance, nor do they represent a necessary condition. Being unknown or little known never did and still does not by itself constitute a serious argument to be used against an intellectual.

Agone: Lettre ouverte de Jacques Bouveresse au Nouvel Observateur, June 27, 2011 [my translation: the whole text is in French]

The excerpt quoted above comes from an open letter written to the French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur in response to a four pages article1 criticizing the nomination of Claudine Tiercelin (see below) as Collège de France Professor where she now holds the chair for Metaphysics and Philosophy of Knowledge. The opening argument brought forward by the article concerns the fact that Claudine Tiercelin is not well known (at least from the journalist’s point of view). The article quotes an anonymous source complaining that the newly nominated professor “doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page” (she does now). Thus Bouveresse’s reaction. It’s also good to know that Bouveresse, who doesn’t try to hide it (he mentions it in his letter), proposed and defended Claudine Tiercelin’s candidacy.
The whole “affair” has complex ramifications. I will concentrate on the problem underlined by Jacques Bouveresse in the excerpt. It is not a new one, although it is indeed incredibly pervasive in our society. It could be summarized in four words: the more, the better.
One of its common manifestations for anyone who spent some time online can be found in the very structure of various social networking services (Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and more recently Google+) where the vast majority of us seek more friends, more hits, more followers, more retweets, more visitors. As if it was a virtue and as if it automatically means better content, better reputation, better experience.
I believe the pervasive nature of this problem lies in a double confusion:

  1. The confusion between quantity and quality: the belief or the thought reflex that brings us to immediately understand a quantity as a quality. To link the both is not wrong in essence: there’s a relation between quantity and quality. In Human, all too human, Nietzsche wrote:

    But quantity raised to the highest pitch as the effect of quality. (“Assorted opinions and maxims”, §162, tr. by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 249, Google books)

    However, this relation is problematic. It asks for an investigation and a demonstration. What’s wrong is to take the relation for granted and assume that it goes without explanation.
    As I wrote above, this is not a new problem. In the fourth century BCE, philosophers from the Megarian school wondered about the number (quantity) of grains it takes to make a heap (being a heap is a quality; see Paradox of the heap). Centuries later, Hegel2, Freud (see below), Peirce, Russell, Bateson (among others) were still struggling with the problem. Robert Musil (with whom’s work Jacques Bouveresse is very familiar) undertsood this confusion between quantity and quality as a sickness afflicting modern minds3.

  2. The confusion between two meanings of the word “quality”. It can mean a characteristic (or an attribute or a property): this wood has the quality of being hard. It can also refers to a certain degree of excellence, the characteristic being evaluated as a virtue: the quality of this wood is without equivalent.

The problem brought forward by Bouveresse can thus be understood in two parts:

  1. Being famous is pretty much like being a heap. One is famous because his or her existence is known by a certain quantity of individuals (it could be argued that one is famous when one’s life is covered by popular media: but this mainly has to do with the fact that some media have a wider audience than others). When does one start to be famous? This, I believe, is a problem of perspective as well as a problem of social networks.

    And when I write “problem”, I mean precisely that it is open for discussion: to say that someone is not famous is not an argument, it is something in need of an explanation. The explanation has to do with the description of a threshold. For example, at the beginning of his career Freud was trying to understand how a quantity of stimuli translates into the quality of sensations: how does it happen that at a certain point we start feeling things (temperature, sound, odor, light and color, taste)4?

  2. To argue that being famous necessarily implies a degree of excellence or importance is fallacious. It is an unfounded argument: it has no logical nor experimental foundation. The relationship between the characteristic of being known by a quantity of persons and the importance of one’s intellectual contribution is contingent (it asks for case specific studies). It could even be argued, as Emil Cioran used to do, that actual celebrity (while one is still alive) is the most potent sign of insignificance (in regard to history)5.

    There are indeed famous persons whose lifework’s value is questionable. On the other hand, there are relatively unknown people whose work I couldn’t live without. I don’t know the names of the engineers who invented the transistors. I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia: apparently Julius Edgar Lilienfeld “filed the first patent for a transistor in Canada in 1925”. The man died in 1963. Nonetheless, someone put up a Facebook page in his honor: as of now, he has 13 fans.

At the end of the seventies, Gilles Deleuze brought forward an observation similar to to the one shared by Bouveresse: he talked about “intellectual marketing” in regard to what was then called “the new philosophers”:

It all began with television, and the special editions that sought to tame willing intellectuals. The media no longer needs intellectuals. I’m not saying that this reversal, this domestication of the intellectual, is a disaster. That’s how things go: precisely when writing and thought were beginning to abandon the author-function, when creations no longer required an author-function for them to be active, the author-function was co-opted by radio and television, and by journalism. Journalists have become the new authors, and those writers who wanted to become authors had to go through journalists, or become journalists themselves. A function that had been somewhat discredited has managed to recapture some modernity and find a new conformity by changing its place and its object. This is what made the enterprise of intellectual marketing possible. (first published as “À propos des nouveaux philosophes et d’un problème plus général” in mai 1977 as a free booklet accompanying no 24 of the journal Minuit; published in English in Two Regimes of Madness, ed. David Lapoujade , trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina New York: Semiotext(e), 2006, p. 143)

Finally, David Kishik6 recently shared a similar thought on his blog Notes for the coming community:

Granted, there is not much money to be made doing theoretical work. Which makes it all the more difficult to explain why theory turned into something that looks more and more like a feverish commodity market. Like the latest electronic gadgets, today’s concepts and subjects quickly rise and fall as they enter and exit the discourse of speculative exchange in the marketplace of ideas.
At the same time young financiers consult their Bloomberg machines in an attempt to decide whether they should invest their available capital in crude oil futures or sub-prime morgages, young philosophers attend scholarly conferences and read blog posts in an attempt to figure out what people talk about in today’s theoretical landscape, and where they should invest their available brain cells. Biopolitics? Animal philosophy? Speculative realism? Anarchism? Hauntology? (“The Alienation of Theory”, July 7, 2011)

• • •

Learn more about Claudine Tiercelin:

  • Press release (in French): “Le Collège de France crée une chaire de Métaphysique et philosophie de la connaissance et nomme le Pr. Claudine Tiercelin titulaire” (PDF), May 2011.

  • Collège de France: Claudine Tiercelin biography (in English)
  • Consider the additional irony: Claudine Tiercelin just organized a two days international symposium on… “The Epistemology of Disagreement”. Watch a video of Pr. Tiercelin opening address (French / English) or read the program (bilingual: PDF).

• • •

1. Le Nouvel Observateur: “L’inconnue du Collège de France” by Aude Lancelin, June 9, 2011. ↩︎︎

2. See his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §108 (tr. by . F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S. Harris, Cambrige: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., [1817]1991, p. 171). Excerpt:

In this way, on the one hand, quantitative determinations of what is there can be altered, without its quality being affected thereby, but, on the other, this indifferent increase and decrease also has a limit, the transgression of which alters the quality. Thus, for instance, the temperature of water is, up to a point, indifferent in relation to its liquid state; but there comes a point in the increasing or decreasing of the temperature of liquid water where this state of cohesion changes qualitatively, and the water is transformed into steam, on the one hand, and ice, on the other. When a quantitative alteration takes place it appears, to start with, to be something quite innocent; but something quite different lurks behind it, and this seemingly innocent alteration of the quantitative is like a ruse with which to catch the qualitative. ↩︎︎

3. I’m thinking specifically about his novel The Man Without Qualities. One could think of similar observations made by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his novel The Little Prince. The tone between the two novels, however, is obviously quite different. On the same subject see René Guénon’s book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times first published in French as Le règne de la quantité et les signes des temps (1945), translated in English in 2001 (Google books with preview)↩︎︎

4. See “Project for a Scientific Psychology” written in 1895, first published in 1950, translated to English by James Strachey in 1954 in The Origins of Psycho-Analysis, London: Imago Publishing Co.; New York: Basic Books, pp. 347-445 (as of now, the English edition is not available online; see the Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing for more information). A French translation is available online (PDF, see specifically page 10). ↩︎︎

5.See for instance his Cahiers 1957-1972 (Paris: Gallimard, 1999, p. 559):

Quelle sensation extraordinaire, pour un écrivain, d’être oublié! D’être posthume de son vivant, de ne plus voir son nom nulle part. Car toute littérature est une question de nom et de rien d’autre. Avoir un nom, l’expression en dit long. Eh bien! n’avoir plus de nom, si tant est qu’on en ait jamais eu vaut peut-être mieux que d’en avoir. La liberté est à ce prix. La liberté, et, plus encore, la délivrance. Un nom – c’est tout ce qui reste d’un être. C’est stupéfiant qu’on puisse peiner et se tourmenter pour si peu de chose. ↩︎︎

6. David Kishik was born in Israel. He’s now an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (where he was still teaching last spring). More importantly, he’s the author of Wittgenstein’s Form of Life (2008, Continuum Books) and The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics (forthcoming, November 2011, Stanford University Press). He co-translated with Stefan Pedatella Giorgio Agamben’s English edition of Nudities (2010, Stanford University Press) and What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays (2009, Google books with preview). ↩︎︎

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