Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The game show intellectual

An upcoming book called The Know-it-all documents a man's effort to become the "smartest man in the world" by reading the encyclopaedia. Now I know the premise is a joke, and the synopsis I just gave is the marketing spin, the book nevertheless trades on a pernicious notion that typifies the fate of knowledge in a consumer capitalist society. Knowledge is really about thinking processes, about having the wherewithal to break things down or recombine ideas to create new understanding. It is about setting ideas in motion, since nothing static, no fixed idea can be said to have any truth to it -- "truth" is always in flux, always shifting as it is perceived from different angles. We must always be in the process of revising our understanding of things to reflect the many facets and perspectives available on any given phenomenon. This is the essesnce of dialectics -- to keep dialectics "sharp" is to refuse to let any knowledge become static and universally true, that is to refuse to reify knowledge into a fact. Knowledge is practical, useful; it allows you to act. Facts are flat, static, famously "stupid things." They allow you not to act, but to covet and own information independent of its usefulness, the same way comic book collectors own titles far too valuable to read.

Of course, the Encyclopaedia does nothing but reify thought into fact, turning a living process into a congealed thing. It turns useful information into so much trivia. It is the literal embodiment of knowledge as a collection rather than an activity. Consumer capitalism encourages this transformation because it mainly deals in things, only knows how to account for things, and reckons value in terms of sheer quantity rather than quality or sophistication or depth. In capitalist society, collectors supplant workers; or rather, people identify more with what they collect than what they do. We might laugh at the ludicrous premise of The Know-it-all, and think it absurd that one can become smart by knowing the greatest number of facts, but most Americans do conceive of intelligence this way. They connect it to the amassing of trivia, which is why they have nothing but contempt for intellectuals, who as nothing but banks of useless disconnected facts about things, seem to regular people to be frivoulously wasting themselves on ephemera, confirming to regular people their secret happiness at not being an intellectual, and confirming how right they are not to better inform themselves about anything at all. Hell, if I weren't so ignorant, these upright Americans think, I might end up like one of those worthless game show contestants. The game show in America is where the intellectuals are defined, produced: intellectuals are shown to have nothing to do with how the world actually works, but as vain, weirdly arrogant and awkward know-it-alls who can name all the generals in the Napoleanic wars but are helpless in the face of a real problem. When Americans think of intellectuals, they think of the folks on Jeopardy! -- consider the recent fascination with the man who has won for thirty-some straight days on the show (The Know-it-all, too, includes a section where the author tries to get on game shows, that alleged proving ground of the intellect). He is lionized, considered to be the apotheosis of what an intellectual in America can accomplish, but is also regarded as a wacky freak, proving again that intellectuals are mere fodder for entertainment and nothing more, equivalent to the fire-eater and the guy whose whole body is tattooed.

Because when intelligence is reified as a quantity, intellectuals are by definition greedy hoarders of too many facts. They are inherently excessive, like the man with too many tattoos or the man who weighs four hundred pounds, like misers. They read the encylopaedia from cover to cover. But that doesn't make you smart, that's guaranteed to make you stupid, to destroy the connection between knowledge and action, what's referred to in critical-theory jargon as "practice" or, even more pretentiously, "praxis." All you have is a jumble of facts with no intention of ever applying them (except on the dog-and-pony parade of game shows). This is what consumer capitalism does -- it makes intelligence into facts, and intellectuals into those who indiscriminately gather them, making them a collection of stupid people who think they are smarter than everyone else because they can rattle off world capitals or leaders whose names start with the letter R.Hopefully The Know-it-all satirizes rather than reaffirms this insane process.

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