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Henry has an interesting entry over at Crooked Timber, riffing on Matthew Yglesias's complaints about "the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork [Media]." In said entry, he compares the near-monopoly of PM to the Mafia, from sort of an organizational standpoint.

One interesting piece is this. A criminal organization has some interest in brokering "bad" transactions, thereby impressing upon its customers the wisdom of sticking with them ("The mafioso himself has an interest in regulated injections of distrust into the market to increase the demand for the product he sells – that is, protection."). Similarly,

one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public. This ensures that the Plain Music-Punters of Ireland remain unsure of their own ability successfully to gauge artistic quality, and don’t start ignoring what pop critics say in favor of following their own aesthetic judgements.

Folks in the comments are rightfully skeptical of this suggestion, at least of the idea that critics might engage in this intentionally. But there's something more to it when I step back, and I'm thinking here in terms of disciplinary networks. If we remove the "good/bad" valuation and just think in terms of information/noise, then I wonder if this isn't an intrinsic feature of any organization where filtering carries reward, even if that reward is just whuffle.

When I think of this, I think of Latour's emphasis on the involvedness of writing, even when it sets itself the "simple" task of description. To describe something is to pay attention to it, attention that is not being paid elsewhere by either writer or reader--at some base level, there's an endorsement implied, and that endorsement either engenders or discourages some degree of trust. There are writers whose work I will read without a second thought because I trust that what they have to tell me is worth my time and attention. This ties into our growth as collectors of whatever, be it academic knowledge, obscure Swedish music, a customer base, etc. It's how we build our personal databases of stuff.

Henry's post has got me thinking in the opposite direction, though. Collection aspires towards canonicity, reading/hearing/seeing/thinking everything and making the database complete. But there's an opposite force as well, one that isn't necessarily evil. Maybe it's just plain old fallibility (Latour makes much of the "risk of failing" necessary for success.), but I also think about how a certain amount of success within an organization allows agents to frame things. I'm thinking of certain people within our field, for instance, whose ability to raise particular concerns or areas of inquiry has been earned by their prior work. Let me try and make this clearer. There are people whose work I read, and spend a couple of years coming to terms with, only to find that they themselves have moved on to other things. And those other things function as noise with respect to the information that I've been assimilating. Those folk are "ahead of" what conversational curve there is in our discipline.

It's like the ratio between given and new (or between centripetal and centrifugal, for that matter), but where the ability to introduce new is related to network centrality. New information, if it is to be anything other than noise, must overcome a certain degree of inertia, which is more easily done from that position of centrality, whether it's in the form of placement in a prominent journal or quasi-celebrity status. But initially it functions as noise, as something else we need to pay attention to.

[A quick amendment: I don't want this to sound like there's inevitability in the noise->information transition, though. Celebs can get a much broader hearing for their ideas, whether or not they're any good. And sometimes those ideas stick around whether or not they're any good, for any number of reasons. Having greater powers of circulation doesn't guarantee better ideas. Sadly enough, in some cases.]

I don't know if any of this is making sense, but I feel like I'm a little closer to something than I was before today. It would be fairly easy, I think, to spin this cynically--academics inventing crap to justify their cushy gigs, blah blah blah--except that I think there's something about it that's not intrinsic to academia but to any organization that involves mediation. And that returns me to Latour, for whom mediation is never transparent or innocent. The idea that a certain amount of noise is inevitable is something I want to think about.

That's all for now.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on October 9, 2006 5:34 PM.

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