This being the tenth of these columns, I thought it appropriate to put it a good word for the institution that makes it possible.
Ever since market society began in earnest–and all society is always already market society–people have been heard to complain that popularity in the marketplace is a sign of vulgarity–the words have the same root meaning–rather than quality. One variant of this dilemma is the greater popularity of the facile over the profound in the realm of ideas. Those the public adopts as its thinkers are generally journalists rather than philosophers.
But philosophers don’t really have to compete with journalists. They become tenured professors whose salary is independent–luckily for us–of the meager revenues brought in by their books, the publication of which is subsidized by foundations or university presses. The reward of popularity in the academic world is not obtained from paying customers but, on the contrary, from taxpayer subsidies.
As a senior member of the academic profession (in the sense used by the waiter who asked me the other day if I wanted to order from the senior menu), I can recall when the academic world was more like a club than a marketplace. The profession was much smaller; the few full professors all knew, and pretended to respect, each other. As a result, their professional value had a low level of fungibility. The rare move from one campus to another was either a necessity (the result of scandal or of loss in a long-standing feud) or a promotion–say, from the Big Ten to the Ivy League.
But because the alternatives to the market partake of the overall structure of market society, they tend to return to the norm by becoming clones, or caricatures, of the economic marketplace. This is certainly true of today’s larger, more impersonal, chronically underfunded academic environment. Faculty are less loyal to institutions, as are institutions to their faculties. As the competition has grown fiercer, the old-boy system has been replaced by a more clearsightedly self-interested network of cliques who regulate the distribution of scarce resources. Particularly crucial is control over the academic media, the channels by which ideas are distributed: scholarly journals, conferences, colloquia. University presses publish fewer books, and the more prestigious periodicals and conferences tend to reward interpersonal skills more than intellectual ones. As the academic world obeys with increasing rigor the laws of the market, one who refuses the current values of the academic marketplace resembles less a pure artist faithful to his ideal than a stubborn manufacturer whose product no one wants to buy.
But it is a general rule of market society that when one becomes able to formulate a problem, some way of deferring its impact is not far behind. The new mechanism that acts as a safety valve for the academic market is the rise of electronic media, and in the first place, the WWW. Without the Web, creating Anthropoetics would have been several degrees more difficult, and the Chronicles column would have been unthinkable. Whether or not these are the most heavily accessed pages on the WWW, they are far more available there than in libraries, and Web activity among the notoriously computer-semiliterate intelligentsia is only just beginning.
By relieving the scarcity of channels that assimilates the academic world to the economic world, electronic communications level the playing-field for intellectual competition. Presence on the WWW is no guarantee of quality or of readership, but the most one can expect of any medium is that it facilitate the existence of a true marketplace of ideas unencumbered by institutional inertia.