Curiosity-driven research: Does it exclude a market?

November 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Max Weber in Kyoto, Doshisha University Library (女田図, 361.23||W-34, 閉架(B1F))

Dear reader,

who entered “Durkheim Science as a vacation” in an unknown search engine: Your query has been redirected: My article on the subject quotes Weber, Max – not Durkheim, Émile. Because the former is the author of a great essay on the subject of “Science as a Vocation” – a sort of death drive for recognition. The irony of Weber is that as soon as you are recognized as a substantial contributor to science, you will be most likely … retired.

From the viewpoint of many scholars in Germany it is understandable that students now protest against the implementation of the Bologna reforms. Cramming knowledge of centuries into a couple of semesters leaves little space for personal development or even … curiosity. But going on strike, c’mon, is it really going to revive 1968? We have deadlines, too.

The pleasure of the few is happiness for the many

Already Friedrich Nietzsche lamented the state of the German university back in 1872 (Über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten). In a conversation of a student and a philosopher-teacher, the student recalls:

“you used to say that no one would long for education if he knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people is and can be. And even this small number of truly educated is not really possible without the mass of others, who, against their nature, and determined only by a promising deception, get engaged in education.”

A double analogy at best. Many (the mass) adhere to an ideal of universal education. But for Nietzsche only a few (the truly educated) can attain that ideal. The mass follows an ideal brought down to a “national-economic” formula: “more knowledge and education, thus more production and in the end – more happiness.” If that is the rationale of education, personal development in a more liberal scheme will procure less happiness and less production. Dear reader, the path to less happiness will start with the right terms. And while some are quarreling with the terms, others are operating with factors.

Market accountability – where German and American universities differ

Nathan Rosenberg, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford, gave a lecture at the WZB in Berlin on the structural disparity of German and American universities. His basic assumption was that American higher education was “not a system” but rather an association of individual institutions. His three main points were: 1) research is heavily market oriented 2) graduate students are actively involved and recognized in research and 3) universities are a lot more “responsive” to demands from outside. He was bewildered by the ratio of students per professor in Germany and could not imagine how personal development of individual young researchers was possible under such conditions. A tacit voice from the audience replied: “It isn’t.” But above all he was making the claim that competition among universities for faculty, resources  and students was the driving force behind innovation. American universities are after all “economic institutions” who can manage their day-to-day affairs only on the basis of their interests from accumulated assets.

Stanford University, ⓒ A. Mager

A fellow doctoral student from the USC Annenberg School of Communication commented on a presentation he had seen on an eye-tracking software in Winterthur during a conference on Journalism Research in the Public Interest. The presenter was Sebastian Feuß from the University of Leipzig.  While Feuss presented his findings on the behavior of young people and their online reading/viewing habits in the interest of pure science, my fellow from the USC commented: “If I had that kind of equipment, I’d be a millionaire.” I wouldn’t doubt him. Descending into market orientation – whatever your market may be – is not a bad way to keep your research aligned with public interest. If you want to know a secret about the business world, it will be simple: “Keep the deadline!” Happiness galore.

For more articles which met deadlines, consider reading these:

Baudrillard and Symbolic Exchange

January 6, 2008 § 8 Comments

The concept of symbolic exchange is crucial and foundational for most of Jean Baudrillard’s theorizing on mass society, media society and can help to understand the often contradictory and whimsical way in which he presents his critique. If you have reached this page looking  for the quick and dirty definition of symbolic exchange, you will be disappointed. Because if you are trying to understand the concept, you already have made the first step in reducing the number of possible meanings. Most basically, symbolic exchange is a form of exchange that maintains and organizes social relations and hierarchies. The difference to other forms of exchange is that the value of an exchanged object does not value the act of exchanging it. Symbolic exchanges are not aimed at establishing equivalence (equal value) between two exchanged tokens, as in the exchange of money for goods or services. The easiest example of a symbolic exchange is “doing someone a favor.” Often based on an already established relation, the favor is not calculated in monetary terms but is part of a series of acts which maintain and keep up a relation. The difference to monetary exchanges is marked by the strong rejection of any form of payment for such “favors.”

Pre-modern Symbolic Exchange and Production

For Baudrillard the importance of symbolic exchange is its pre-capitalist dimension. Symbolic exchange rejects (or does not know) the profit-oriented calculation of investments and returns, which Max Weber had defined as the characteristic feature of Western capitalism (see his chapter on the Spirit of Capitalism, or the “Vorbemerkung zu den gesammelten Aufsätzen zur Religionssoziologie“). In Baudrillard’s work, the book “Symbolic Exchange and Death” (fr. 1976; engl. 1993) marks a crucial turning point. The title refers to the perception of time in so-called primitive cultures, which relies on a cyclical model instead of a linear one. Life and death are not separate, but are coextensive forms of presence. In regular, ritual festivities, the living “animate” the deceased, make them part of their present so that both the living and the dead inhabit the same space. This exceptional time of the ritual is also a period where the regular activities of daily life are suspended, were riches are wasted (potlatch, expenditure, consumption in the sense of ‘destruction’) and are not invested. The more one wastes during such a ritual, the higher one’s social standing is within the group. The ability to waste, to give all that one has in a symbolic act, marks an individuals social rank and is a source of recognition. Georges Bataille drew attention to this anti-economic model of society, which he viewed as a way to critique capitalism. Douglas Kellner has summarized that

Bataille and Baudrillard presuppose here a contradiction between human nature and capitalism. They maintain that humans „by nature“ gain pleasure from such things as expenditure, waste, festivities, sacrifices, and suchlike, in which they are sovereign, and are free to expend their energy excess and thus follow their „real nature.” (Jean Baudrillard, 1989: 42)

What Baudrillard finds interesting in such forms of negating exchange, which destroys value instead of creating profit, is the critical perspective it allows for his analysis of capitalism. With the linear, profit-oriented thinking of capitalism, the category of death suddenly becomes the opposite of life, just as waste (ie. consumption) becomes the opposite of production. This thesis is already prepared in his book “The Mirror of Production” (fr. 1973; engl. 1975) where he underlines in a crucial passage (Chapter 2: “Marxist Anthropology and the Domination of Nature”) how early capitalism regards the excavation of raw materials from nature as the initial value creation of its enterprise.

Raw nature is the non-value of production, because the resource it provides (ore, lumber, coal) does not have a price in and of itself. With the excavation of raw materials from nature, capitalism also produces “nature” as a sign, which is antithetical to itself. Were capitalism is organization, dirt and conflict, nature becomes Eden, pure and wild. Only by itself from nature in such a way, does modern production (and culture) create /nature/ as a sign. With linear thinking (cmp. Hegel’s teleology of history) the world becomes divided into opposing pairs (life/death; value/non-value; object/subject; consumption/production; reality/non-reality) gradually replacing the pre-modern notion of complementary parts forming the world as a cosmological unity. The title “Symbolic Exchange and Death” effectively summarizes that capitalist society has annulled its Other, it has destroyed all alternatives, by making death not the component part of life but its opposite. Capitalism has annulled death, and thus has annulled all alternatives to itself, all opposites to itself. The book marks a turning point because Baudrillard only begins to talk about simulation and hyper-reality as founding concepts of capitalism after a long reflection on the creation of value in capitalism in his early works.

Language and the Symbolic

Besides the economic dimension of symbolic exchange, Baudrillard also includes a linguistic-cultural dimension in his concept of simulation, “the radical negation of the sign as value” as he terms it in his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” (Simulacra and Simulation, 1994: 6). In an idiosyncratic equation between the value of production and the value of the sign as meaning, Baudrillard picks up debates in French semiotics of the 1960s and 70s which reflected Roland Barthes’ semiology, or the structure of signs and their meaning. At some point, Baudrillard rejects the semioticians’ obsession with the meaning of signs, and the entire idea of finding a mechanism or theory which could, with mathematical precision, explain the formation of meaning as such.

Where Barthes keeps up a distinction between denotation (literal meaning) and connotation (associative meaning) of signs, Baudrillard poses that “denotation is never anything but the most beautiful and the most subtle of connotations” (Pour une Critique de l’Economie Politique du Signe, 1972: 192; engl. 1981). Baudrillard thus draws attention to the arbitrariness of defining one meaning of a sign as its essence, while relegating all other meanings to the realm of secondary associations. This definition of a core meaning is in itself a social convention, the result of power relations between editors, academics and publishers. In fact, the illusion of anything as definite as a core meaning of a sign covers up the constant process of negotiation over meanings. The social life of signs is marked by a constant ambivalence, which according to Baudrillard, makes it impossible to fix meanings. The symbolic dimension of a sign is here especially interesting because it plays at the knowledge of a particular meaning, yet negates the value of this meaning. In the symbolic act, the literal meaning is converted into something completely different, which is admittedly open to debate. The symbolic is thus subversive of the sense of the value of signs as meaning (See also my article “define: symbolic“).  This dimension of signs to escape definite meanings in social interaction prepares Baudrillards insistence on the power of simulation in the mass media.

In summary, symbolic exchange is a crucial and complicated critical concept for understanding the early and middle works of Baudrillard. It includes a theory of modernity, of production, of value and capitalism, which in turn is derived from an idiosyncratic blend of French post-war semiotics with a Marxist analysis of society. Of central importance is the distinction (whether actual or rhetorical) between pre-modern societies and capitalism, between cyclical and linear models of time, between production and consumption and above all, value as a common category of production (exchange value) and language (as sign value or meaning). Baudrillard thus fuses an economic theory with a theory of language to arrive at a theory of the mass media as key historical actors of the proliferation of simulacra.

*** Coda on Resources for Research ***

The best resource on this whole subject is Mike Gane’s book “Jean Baudrillard. Critical and Fatal Theory” (Routledge, 1991), on which I relied for much of my research. Based on Gane but more focused on the role of mass media in Baudrillard’s theorizing of society is William Merrin’s “Baudrillard and the Media” (Polity Press, 2005) and William Pawlett’s “Jean Baudrillard. Against Banality” (2007). For a reference guide to the scattered occurrence of individual terms and concepts, the index compiled by Gerry Coulter in 2007 provides an excellent resource. Here you will find the many meanings of symbolic exchange in all of Baudrillard’s writings (p. 126/7). The Journal of Baudrillard Studies continues and expands the critical work on Baudrillard’s theories in the present. My own book on the role of symbolic exchange in Baudrillard’s early works was published in 2009. See the entry for more details or download the book (in German).

*** PS ***

“What are you doing after the Orgy” was an essay by Baudrillard, published in Artforum in Oct. 1983. It plays through a number of ways in which the media constitute reality as spectacle of exposure. The term “obscenity” is used frequently by Baudrillard, which brings together an obvious moral judgement on such exposures, but also a pun on the “ob-scene”, the non-scene which the media create for their own spectacles. The analogy is basically that the media use preconceived models (decors, settings, plots and narratives) to create the scenes in which certain signs (images, discourses, sounds) are presented – most often detached from the contexts in which these signs were recorded or “lived”.

The Italian miracle is the miracle of the scene.

The American miracle is the miracle of the obscene.

Luxury of the senses against the deserts of insignificance. (p.46)

Science as a Vacation

November 8, 2007 § 2 Comments

I don’t want to question the merits of either Peter Sloterdijk nor Rüdiger Safranski, both acclaimed philosophers in Germany, but point to a more general trend among the German humanities which explicitly deals with the break of symbolic exchanges in the Academia – in Germany and elsewhere probably. I am told that Safranski’s book on Nietzsche is highly readable and serves as a profound introduction for non-experts. For Sloterdijk, the case is harder, his “Sphären” (Spheres, as yet not translated into English, only Spanish as Esferas) repelled me when I glanced over the first sentences but I am not an expert on philosophy either. It might have its merits in certain respects among the community.

Ruediger Safranski

Both are good at writing it seems, but their TV show on ZDF shows the unbridgeable gap between the so called “ivory tower” of philosophy and the language of practitioners such as Otto Schilly, former German Minister of Interior. The subject was security and how to keep it. Schilly had been accused of curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism during his term. It was Safranski, who started a monologue about how Ministers live in a safe environment with bullet proof windows, bodyguards and safe work spheres, that they imagine the outside world to be inherently hostile. Thus they perceive of the outside as a threat and enemy, passing stricter laws against criminals and terrorists even as a preemptive measure. Schilly had a laugh at the philosopher’s indulgence in his own words and “theorizing”. At this point the audience was undecided which threat to follow. I follow Schilly here, neither to endorse his reasoning, nor to get involved in the debate about security. But the pointlessness of such philosophic discourse was revealed in that very moment, as Safranski and Sloterdijk kept on pondering their ideas. It became clear that Schilly and the others were concerned with different sorts of questions. Where decisions mark the horizon of theorizing, philosophy turns into science as a vacation from decision-making. But more accurately, this sort of science has lost any contact with the public that makes it possible.

Max Weber wrote a marvelous article on “Science as a Vocation” in 1917 (several versions exist) where he detailed not only the exterior factors of the academic apparatus, the status relationships and financial structure, but more importantly the “inner disposition” of the scientist. The conclusion is that Science is dedicated to a “cause” first and foremost, but with the ultimate realization that any scientific achievement will be and wants to be surpassed. After struggling through the busy days of assistant, the new scientist steps up to a more influential position, where he is finally able to achieve his true vocation. But his findings will be at the hight of their time only for a short period of time – 10 years or 20 at the maximum. He will be criticized, refuted and ultimately he is forgotten. That has nothing to do with the shelf-life of books, it is the course of progress, according to Weber. Today, science is only rarely identified with a vocation but rather seen as a profession. This is in part founded on the break of symbolic relationships between professors and disciples that for a long time ensured the passing of knowledge outside the immediate realm of publications.

Peter Sloterdijk

For Weber and others, the crowd of disciples has been the vanguard against oblivion. Whereas the natural sciences need a certain group of new staff for complex measurements and experimentation, the humanities have problems enticing new disciples to the challenge of being soon forgotten, because the idols in the the cosy ivory tower of narcissist reflection stay beyond their deadline of achievement. Certainly, there is always a spill-out of dubious texts on less obvious subjects in the humanities. No one should want to regard intellectual production only in the light of a subsequent publication. But for the most part, publications in the German “Geisteswissenschaften” seem to favor another interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

This is especially true of Media Studies, which has lingered as an open form between philosophy, sociology and advertising research. The obligatory reference to Baudelaire when writing about the city, refers not only to an out-dated interpretation, but also obliterates the difference between a text and an observation. Writing about texts is a pleasurable and non-committing activity. For many, science is akin to vacation because they fear the price of true vocation. Instead of admitting their own ephemerality, the heads of the discipline cling to subjects of which they know nothing of, only to stay in the circuits of the media themselves. The reverse effect is that they thoroughly neglect their function as professors. But when the symbolic order of generational change is overridden by the financial calculus and neglect of teaching, science can not be at the service of society.

Photos: ZDF, Das Philosophische Quartett

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