Playing Seriously

July 18th, 2007  |  Published in Social Science, Sociology

Wending my way through some posts on OrgTheory, I ran across an interesting post by Omar Lizardo. He summed up something that’s eaten away at me for a while as I attempt to socialize myself into academia:

I propose that one important component of success in science is the ability to not be serious about the “right” things and to be serious about seemingly unimportant things. This ability is not equally distributed: some people seem unable to not be serious about serious things. Other people are almost constitutively incapable of being serious about non-serious things; they are the ones who “don’t get” the scientific game and who think that getting into a (serious) shouting match over whether Simmel’s contributions have been justifiably neglected or whether Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is incoherent is the weirdest spectacle on the planet. My sense is that if you are one of those latter people and you are still in grad school, if you are “too cool” to take mere ideas seriously, you probably should be thinking about another day job.

He goes on to relate this to some comments from Bourdieu about “playing seriously”.

I am, assuredly, someone who can be serious about non-serious things, even (or especially) Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Moreover, I enjoy being such a person, I want to be such a person, and I think the capacity to play seriously is one of the highest manifestations of the human spirit. Even in its lowest forms–such as the drunken bar argument over a sports team–I love and cherish the fact that our particular species of ape is one that can invest passion and energy in the inessential. Playing seriously is what we do in the realm of freedom.

My problem is that I feel guilty about this. This comes from my background in activism and socialist politics. As long as the inequalities of a class society persist, it feels like bad faith to be serious about the non-serious when there are plenty of serious things to be serious about. I’ve justified this before by arguing that since I have no talent for organizing, it’s better for me to put my energy into academic work, which I’m good at, and which will hopefully be politically useful at some point. But that just feels like an act of bad faith, a way to legitimate not doing something that should be morally imperative because I don’t feel like it. Maybe it would be better to do anti-war organizing badly than to do academic work well.

And of course, all this hand-wringing keeps me from doing academic work too, and instead causes me to procrastinate by writing posts like this.

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