α-LPHA AND ε–PSILON
Individuals aspiring to creative genius in the arts or the sciences – to advance the bleeding edge of any field of expertise – will mostly fall short. It’s an inevitable part of aspirational human nature. Fortunately for the self-esteem of most failed aspirants, the psychological fallout is subsumed in Dunning-Kruger egocentricity.
Aldous Huxley wrote: “The εpsilon children were happy in their fashion. Ever practical, content to live in the moment and trained to be averse to pretensions like useless naval gazing.”
Huxley’s world was not exclusively εpsilon, however. At the top of Brave New World’s intelligence league is the α-lpha class – with its real world analogue – for whom the aspiration to genius is more pronounced and objectively less deluded. The proverbial α-lpha class knows that genius – the advancing of a bleeding edge – grows ever more demanding, as each new generation advances the collective lineage of Enlightenment science and Renaissance art.
But for the highly educated, highly capable α-lpha class there’s no easy refuge from unexceptional ability in Dunning-Kruger and, as the α-lpha professions were drawn into the commodity commerce of market capitalism by the mid-20th century, the career intelligentsia became driven by a need to protect itself (its reputation, its position) from falling short of expectations.
As the expansion of college-going middle class gained pace after the Second World War, a rapidly expanding professorial class grew with it to fill a profusion of new faculty positions. These scholars, trained in critical thinking and taught seek communion with the shining lights of their field, will have been intimately acquainted with genius. But, born into the shadow of the incredible flourishing of Modernist brilliance, most of the successor academics were faced with a sobering reality: an unjust but equally undeniable lack of talent.
How could the generation of career academics too vain and too public-facing for a Dunning-Kruger inner fantasy – blessed with authority over expanding college fiefdoms, feted by civic institutions, wooed by the world of business and increasingly integrated into the funding systems of corporate government – reconcile an ultimate failure – the inevitable falling short of genius, most valued of all creative characteristics – when their position and self-worth required unquestioned authority in their chosen field?
The entire generation of post-war academics faced a crisis of legitimacy by comparison to the extraordinary achievements of the Modernists, who themselves were simply the 20th-century standard bearers of the Western Enlightenment. The expertise class of the 1950s and 1960s led a coordinated change in the very nature of scholarship, turning away from personal challenge at the coalface of four centuries progress (stretching back to Copenicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium) to a public-facing professional corporatism fit to serve the competition marketplace of dollars-and-cents Bretton Woods world.
The conundrum of legitimacy, authority and absolution found an answer that’s remained at the rotten heart of our ahistorical, anti-intellectual 21st-century: postmodernism. From Einstein to James Joyce, Rilke to Kandinsky, Nietszche to Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Heidegger to Wittgenstein, Huxley to Tesla, Freud to Schrödinger, Brecht to Paul Dirac, Orwell to Carl Jung; direct comparison to Modernist genius was a prospect too terrifying, too daunting, too difficult for the post-war academy. Postmodernism was (and is) the solution.
“Great spirits have always encountered the most violent opposition from mediocre minds.“ – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Postmodernist systems are a means to an end, and they have served successive generations of professions – and their students – for at least the past 75 years. Just as the Nazis had bastardised Nietzsche to justify Aryan eugenics, the early postmodernists – educated, excellent, erudite exponents – corrupted Heidegger’s rollback of temporal ontology (as the defining way to think about the world) to legitimise a rejection of the significance of all individual human beings, genius most of all, in the creative process. “Death of the Author” was and is a central slogan of the postmodern project.
In the years after the second world war, societies in great flux demobilized into an altered citizen spirit. Postmodernism was not at first a pervasive dogma. It incubated in the universities as a convergence of genuinely blue sky sociology studying conditions in the immediate aftermath of war with philosophy turned introspective in search of meaning in a post-industrial relativistic universe. Philosophy and sociology might have kept themselves uncorrupted were it not for the arts faculties – far more numerous and influential in an everyday sense – having been caught between a James Joyce rock and a Virginia Woolf hard place.
Career academics, the gatekeepers of society’s collected knowledge and source of credentials conferring legitimacy in the professional world, sought a system to protected their fragile conceits against the genius of Modernism. Small wonder most grasped eagerly at Postmodernist ideas. A generation of Anglophone humanities faculties carried Postmodernism, with its badge of French erudition, into mainstream academia and it was quickly, self-servingly appropriated to meet the converging needs of authority and commerce. By the advent of neoliberal economics in the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s, postmodernist modus operandi had calcified into a cross-faculty movement that’s been consolidating power ever since.
Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous émigré academic after Einstein, saw the poison of postmodernism – and its implicit path of least resistance away from the standards of Enlightenment excellence – had fully entered the veins of baby boomer academia. His greatest work, Pale Fire (1962), was a confession and a warning about the phenomenon of all-devouring postmodernism. The novel’s two characters – the poet and the academic-critic – create a particularly profound depiction of the public and private Nabokov. He wields the power of commercial postmodernism in the role of eloquent critic but – at the same time – perceives (and lives out) its corrosion of his own artistic talent.
By nature we can’t help but be susceptible to the temptations of our worst instincts – the path of least resistance – especially when to resist, to plot an alternative is psychologically risky, complex and uncertain. Academics and artists are no exception. Choices of ‘be true‘ or ‘be compromised‘ follow every academic and every artist throughout their career. They remain at hand during periods of self-doubt. The allure of surrender stands out in every crises of confidence.
The expediency of compromise is ubiquitous, however, and like any groupthink it is amplified by institutional weight of numbers. Eventually, pressure to conform builds to a coda: a choice between principled truth living an increasingly independent hardship – alone, often vilified, denied institutional respect – versus compromise rewarded by offers of security, plenty – acceptance into the club of trust, respect and status.
Back in the 1950s “Beat” poetry was emerging in Columbia University. Its exponents clashed almost immediately with the academic authorities. Brash, young, uncompromising, and threatening to seize the lineage of creative legitimacy, the colleges closed ranks to dispossess the new wave. “Beat” was not allowed to gain credentials; and thus though counter-culture was born, mainstream culture thereafter became an engine of homogeneity, defined by exclusion. Some version of the Columbia-Beat dichotomy played out in a thousand academies: tenured professional professors in the halls overlooked by portraits of modernist genius, training their students to commodify their talents in the skills market, with the vital non-conforming individuals – who might’ve been the natural successors to Modernist genius – shut out, excluded, permanently forced outside the institutions.
Battle lines had been arranged that would be the trajectory of the academy and the so-called rebel for the rest of the 20th-century. Postmodernism, honed and formalised by entrenched institutional cleverness, became both the de facto armour and arsenal of the academy. Atomised, misrepresented and never a coherent movement, the Beats and others were successfully shut out. The universities and the institutions had perfected a prototype for de-platforming and, having the field to themselves, it didn’t take long for the new ideology of aggressive postmodern credentialism to spread.
Two decades of cultural internecine over access to the hearts and minds of the institutions – academia and a plethora of media outlets, print, radio, television, film – reached a point of irreparable divide by the end of the trigger-happy 1960s. Assassination of leading counter-culture figures like Kennedy, MLK, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton testifies to this polarisation as Vietnam, hippy anti-nationalism and widespread student protests against vocational consumerisation of learning (e.g. the Situationists, Kent State, the Weather Underground) brought the power of the state into direct conflict with the individual.
Despite a final generation of outlier brilliance, the 50s-60s-70s children of the Modernist luminaries were denied access to influence mechanisms necessary to create their own successors. Jack Kerouac and the Beats, Tennessee Williams and the Southern Renaissance, James Baldwin and the Civil Rights Movements: doomed to be childless despite their intellectual renown. Indeed, the gatekeeper class focused its power over public opinion to target individual outliers, forcing confrontations with authority and subverting reputations to tarnish counter-culture as a nest of villains.
Commercialisation of college funding and college funding criteria, managed by postmodernist professionals, ensured the next generations of academics were cherry-picked to be suitable successors, indistinguishable from a corporate career ladder. The new post-grads were greedy for authority but trained to play by the rules. Acting in groups, some in pursuit of misguided but sincere notions of democratising the academy, most trained in hostility to Enlightenment wisdom, the gatekeepers and their officers worked to bring to heel outliers – labelling the non-conformist ‘disagreeable’ and disdaining the pursuit of heterodox excellence as a form of disloyalty.
What began as a movement contained within the university faculties marched forth into the education (and institutional) mainstream like a new religion. As with any religion, the doctrine took on a reductive essentialism, quick to highlight opposition in counter-cultural terms, increasingly partnered with state expediency. The colleges grew in profit, the training of white collar professionals monopolised the professions; and in cultural terms, the quality of life in the public square went from bad to worse.
The timing of postmodernism’s domination of the universities was fortuitous and the consolidation of gatekeeper power made the professorial class natural and instructive collaborators with the interests of corporate government and its authoritarian agenda. Both saw their chance: to permanently marginalise dissenters, cutting off nascent genius before it learns to fly, nipping discord in the bud. Untrustworthy writers, artistic auteurs, non-conformist professors: grist for the mill, to be made examples of what not to do, training lessons for ‘good’ future citizens.
Worst of all, as postmodernism and neoliberalism converge into an orthodoxy monolith and the number of genuine rebels grows smaller and smaller, an individual slipping through the net to acquire public status – refusing to be demonstrably loyal to the home-team – is marked an active threat to the right-thinking social order. To an even greater extent than the early Beat and Angry Young Men rebels, these non-conformists are subject to a takedown by every means available in the formidable state-sanctioned gatekeeper playbook. Postmodernism reframes the outliers outside the credentialed circle of decent knowledge and neoliberal economics ensures there’s no market for their heterodox ideas, driving them into bankruptcy (or submission).
“…for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.“ – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
Postmodernism is particularly pernicious, as a cultural movement, because it gives its exponents a toolkit that’s both utilitarian and subject specific, honed – ironically – by thousands of extremely clever and cynical social engineers. It’s the most effective human resource selector of corporate academia. It covers jargon and linguistics. It provides litmus tests to gauge loyal friends and disloyal enemies to the cause.
Allied, by natural affinity, to the business practice of corporate divide-and-conquer, postmodernism has transformed universities into orthodoxy safe zones. Accreditation and ready-made publication so long as there’s no insubordination – or thought crime – against the institution’s rules of conduct. Like a new freemasonry, would-be graduates – and employees – entering the world of postmodernist doctrine receive informal schooling in identifying fellow believers alongside their formal education into career credentialism. Graduation is a trained commitment to the professional managerial class and the techniques of welding subject dogma with the dictates of manufactured consent.
Gatekeepers of the postmodernist arsenal learned to aim using the rightful inheritors of Modernist cultural hegemony. And it was learned fast, as the insidious schism between the credentialed professional class and the individual creative expanded into a global narrative of loyal right-thinking culture versus disloyal wrong-headed counter-culture that’s been a defining polarisation ever since.
By the end of the 20th-century, the spread of postmodern credentialism had become nothing less than an ideological colonisation. It had reached the outside world through successive waves of doctrinaire graduates breaking against every conceivable media and sociocultural institutions. Its tenacity, in the universities, and its success in the institutions, is testimony to the expert self-interest of its progenitor academics and the lasting human appeal of safe, incremental groupthink.
Nowadays, mainstream cultural conformity is ubiquitous. Its takeover has combined the conservatism of appropriated tradition, marshalled against the flash-points of counter cultural push-back, and liberal-statism of professional credential class converted to the tenets of postmodern anti-individualism. The institutions were ready from early on for the shift to mainstream control thanks to the professionalisation of academia against disruptive thinkers (genius) i.e. threats to their monopoly on conferred legitimacy.
With a few exceptions, it had been left to America to take the lead in cutting edge academic and cultural continuity from the 1950s until as late as the 1970s. A diaspora of talent from Europe had bolstered its indigenous faculties before the Second World War, and this continued once the war was over.
The professionalisation of American universities as vocational training rather than less profit-oriented cultivation of free intellectuals brought market forces into the global academy as never before. Europe and now East Asia may no longer be behind North America in its advanced education, but the parochial dollars-and-cents paradigm of the baby boomer period has impressed deeply on the institutions.
“I believe in the value of the book, which keeps something irreplaceable, and in the necessity of fighting to secure its respect.” – Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)