January 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Whenever anything new and noteworthy happens, there is a predictable cycle of opinions about it.
First on the scene are the boosters, who sing the new thing’s praises. To have such a positive attitude about the thing before most people have even heard of it, they usually have some sort of stake in its success, whether that be traditionally economic or just the social capital of early adoption.
Next up, the reactionaries. These people are usually committed to the old thing, and so they believe the new thing is sure to ruin everything. This is true even if they had no idea the old thing was a thing prior to the arrival of the new thing. What they like about the old thing can be reduced to “authenticity”; what they (say they) hate about the new thing is its “inauthenticity.” Conscientious critics will come up with some “material” beef with the new thing, like it disadvantages some segment of the disadvantaged, or destroys the environment. But while this does make their critiques seem more “important,” it never seems to make anyone as mad as it should, for reasons that will become clear in a second.
The final stage of opinionmaking belongs to the counter-reactionaries. They typically belong to the same group of commentators as the reactionaries, their target audience. Instead of dealing with their arguments head-on, the counter-reactionaries position themselves as “over” the concerns of the reactionaries, whom they accuse of an uncritical “nostalgia for authenticity.” Calling someone nostalgic for anything automatically makes them look like an idiot. Sometimes they go a step further and claim that their nostalgia blinds the reactionaries to who is really getting disadvantaged, but that’s not strictly necessary. The point is (though it’s impolitic to just come out and say so) to make it clear that there’s no alternative to the new thing at this time, and any claim that a practical solution is possible is basically hypocritical and/or utopian and/or “transcendental.” This group always wins the contest of opinions, that is, they have the best opinions.
The counter-reactionaries win because they understand that in the marketplace of ideas the only consistent value is seeming the most modern. One can achieve a certain romantic caché for oneself by appearing not to care about trends or “what other people think,” but that’s not much of an idea, and we are of course talking about intellectuals. Conversely, boosterism can seem avant-garde, but always comes with an air of naiveté. And we are of course talking about intellectuals.
Material critique can enhance any of the above opinions, but it can’t stand on its own. In the marketplace of ideas it is imperative to know one’s audience, which consists primarily of other idea marketers. One must never mistake the public sphere for a planning committee.
All the greatest intellectuals in history were able to position themselves as counter-reactionaries. They achieved genius by how totally they were able to a) refute the reactionaries, b) simultaneously refute the boosters, c) suggest the pressing need for a solution to the problem(s) created by the new thing, and d) insist that such a solution will only be possible later, maybe. It’s best if d) is saved for a cryptic and internally contradictory “late period.”
In conclusion, the best ideas are not the most practical, or even the most accurate, but the ones that are impossible to refute.