Archive for February, 2009

Richard Rorty and the Giant Pool of Status

February 16th, 2009  |  Published in Social Science

By way of OrgTheory, I see that Gideon Lewis-Kraus has a nice little essay on Neil Gross's recent book on Richard Rorty. The piece strikes a number of resonant notes for me: on the terminally wack state of academic sociology, the status hierarchy of the university, and the relationship between intellectuals and public life. But one odd thought I had when reading the piece departs from the following passage:

Bourdieu suggested—often impolitely—that the generative basis for a career in thought was to be found in the lusty drive for the kind of symbolic and cultural "capital," his terms of greatest currency, that would help the thinker, and her field, achieve a higher status. In other words, the academy functions largely as an apparatus for refining and transmitting the cultural codes that serve the perpetuation of privilege. Professors, as "the dominated fraction of the dominant class," are the sentries of the class structure.

Gross's book is an attempt to argue that this account does not entirely apply to Rorty. Or, more precisely, that it does not apply to Rorty's later career, after he had gained tenure and a place of prominence within academic philosophy. Instead, Gross claims, it was an inner devotion to an intellectual self-concept as a "leftist American patriot", rather than a bid for status, which drove Rorty's evolution into an odd sort of postmodern pragmatist.

Lewis-Kraus has a number of insightful things to say about the uses and limitations of this account. But as I considered the matter of Rorty's cultural capital, I was put in mind of something about, well, regular old Capital, the kind that the boys at the hedge funds have been busy vaporizing of late. Last year, the NPR show "This American Life" did a great story about the present economic crisis, called "The Giant Pool of Money". The title refers to the roughly $70 trillion of accumulated capital that, in the early part of this decade, went looking for profitable investment opportunities. The trouble was, there just weren't enough low-risk high-reward opportunities--neither investing in the production of stuff nor in U.S. treasury bonds was going to cut it. So instead, this money started flowing into the mortgate market, which seemed like a low-risk, high-reward investment, until it didn't.

The important thing to notice is that once you have a really, really huge pile of money, it gets more and more difficult to find profitable ways of re-investing that money. This has been pointed out recently by various commentators explaining the root causes of the crisis, and it is a rediscovery of something originally pointed out by Marx.

Anyway, it occured to me that Rorty's intellectual makeover could be thought of in a similar way. By the early 1970's, he had accumulated a large amount of cultural capital by basically playing the game of analytic philosophy according to the rules accepted by its leading figures. But once he had risen to the top of that group, there were bound to be limited returns to a strategy of reinvesting cultural capital into the austere discipline of analytic philosophy, what Lewis-Kraus calls "the If-P-then-Q school of compelling reasons." The most he could have hoped for was to be remembered by philosophy professors and grad students, and not by much of anybody else.

The alternative was to plough his cultural capital into a higher-risk project, but one with potentially greater returns. Namely, to stake his reputation on an attempt to break out of the confines of the philosophy department, to redefine both the place of philosophy and the vocation of the intellectual. In staking out such an iconoclastic path, there is always the danger that one will be doomed to obscurity--recognized by neither the profession you have spurned nor the public you court. But if the gambit pays off, you become precisely what Rorty became: someone read across disciplines and even outside of academia, the sort of person whom sociologists write intellectual biographies of.

Which is not to say that this is the only explanation for Rorty's career, or even the most important one. Lewis-Kraus's own observations about the dead-end trajectory of '60's philosophy and present-day sociology are perhaps more to the point. But living as we do in a society which accumulates fame and status in a small number of hands, it's worth speculating about the consequences of "overaccumulating" that status.

And as is the case with money capital, the over-accumulation of cultural capital can have beneficial as well as deleterious results. Just as the tech bubble of the late 1990's let to an overinvestment in broadband capacity that created the basis for the future growth of the Internet, so does the overaccumulation of status among a few star academics allow some of them to do truly transformative and pathbreaking work, as Rorty did.