Sunday, December 01, 2013

Why "Neoliberalism" is Not a Helpful Term

Over at The New Inquiry Mike Konczal has an excellent review of Philip Mirowski's new book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. Mirowski's book consists of two distinct pieces. The first is an effort to define that most abused of contemporary academic buzzwords, neoliberalism; the second is an account of how and why the economics profession as a whole has failed to reform itself in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis and global depression. Konczal criticizes both halves of this argument, more fairly in the case of the first half than the second.

 While appreciating what Mirowski is trying to do in offering a clear definition of "neoliberalism" - a term that, as he says, should be "added to "the 'avoid jargon' list on graduate-school syllabi" - Konczal takes issue with Mirowski's heterodox reading of this term. In brief, Mirowski argues that neoliberalism is best seen not as an ideology that aims at "free markets" - that is, at getting government out of the regulatory game, but rather as a system in which the government sets up markets that favor capital over labor. By contrast, Konczal argues that neoliberalism is better seen as class warfare, tout court. But is this really the choice? Can't it be both?

While I agree with Konczal that neoliberalism is a code word for class warfare, things get complicated depending on how literally we take the metaphor of war. Does this metaphor necessarily imply a systematic strategy handed down by the standing committee of the ruling class (a role Mirowski elsewhere has seemed to impute to the Mont Pelerin Society)? That seems implausible. However, a more reasonable reading of the metaphor is that there is a struggle for power going on between two different categories of interest groups, but that one side is much more effective in organizing its efforts (mainly because the collective action problems of capital holders are far fewer than those of laborers; that further, the former have many more resources at their disposal than the latter). This more modest understanding of the "war" metaphor also permits us to understand that there are meaningful debates within the class of capital holders as to the best strategy for sustaining capital accumulation.

This latter point is the focus of Konczal's critique of Mirowski. As Konczal usefully points out, the central policy debate today is within neoliberalism. On the one hand, there are those who think that the best way to improve capital formation (marketed to the masses as "growth") is for the state to be help construct and regulate markets in order to ensure socially-optimal outcomes, which includes regularizing profits for capitalists and avoiding social outcomes which put political stability at risk within a democratic society. This is what Mirowski calls neoliberalism. On the other hand, there are those who call for the state to get out of the regulatory game altogether. Mirowski calls this latter group libertarianism, in contrast to (his definition of) neoliberalism, but Konczal argues (following David Harvey) that this is in fact not as a completely different ideological formation, but rather as a debate among sympathizers with capital over political strategy.

Where I part ways with Konczal is over the practical politics involved. As politically sympathetic as I am to the idea that neoliberalism all amounts to class warfare in the final analysis, we must admit that these two broad strategies constitute more and less humane ways in which to prosecute that war. It is simply too crude to dismiss these differences as irrelevant. The interim analysis matters as much as the final analysis, in other words. It's all well and good to observe that the post-DLC Democratic Establishment are neoliberals who side with capital over labor in the class struggle, but it is politically obtuse not to see a difference between the Tea Party and Obama. The latter may be a class warrior, but he is in favor of a more humane way of conducting that war. What's certain is that the term "neoliberalism" is unhelpful for clarifying any of this.

The second part of Mirowski's book is about how and why the economics profession has refused to come to terms with its abject failures over the last decade. As many people have pointed out, one would think that the failure of the economics profession to foresee the global financial crisis would have caused some serious soul-searching for the profession about the scientificity of its claims. For economists, the failure to foresee 2007-8 should have been as much of a come-to-jesus as the failure to foresee the collapse of the USSR was for Sovietologists and international relations scholars. But there's been no serious effort to reform the field. (One small but telling measure of the lack of accountability is that one of the head cheerleaders for the system that imploded in 2008 was rewarded with a Nobel Prize this year.) What Mirowski wants to do is to ask why this is so.

Rather than rehearse Mirowski's argument, I would just say the following: The problem with economics is not with its substantive accomplishments as a field. In terms of creating reliable predictions or offering useful assessments of real-world phenomena, economics probably does a bit better than most other kinds of social science. (No one else really anticipated the meltdown either, right?) No, the real problem with economics has to do with economists' overweening self-confidence and their (concomitant) intellectual hegemony. To put it another way, the problem is not that they're wrong more often than the rest of us, it's that they're not right that much more often and despite this fact, policymakers continue to defer to them far too much. It's the politics of it. What needs to be explained is how, despite their failures, economists have managed to establish and defend their warrant in the public sphere much more effectively than any other group of social scientists. (Possible exception: demographers.) Mirowski has spent his career assessing how economics as a profession pulled off this confidence trick. His answer is: by emulating the discursive structure of 19th century physics (that is: mathematical modeling of closed systems whose 'natural' propensity is assumed to be towards equilibrium), economics has made its claims about the proper social organization and distribution of scarce goods seem like an objective and scientific matter, rather than a fundamentally political question about norms and institutions. Konczal finds this part of the book weak, since Mirowski doesn't propose an alternative and better form of economics. But this seems to me unfair: the lack of a cure shouldn't distract us from the value of the diagnosis.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Master Narrative of the Tea Party

The worldview of the Tea Party:

Founded by Christian patriots in a tax revolt, America has always resisted the tyranny of an out-of-touch and tax-happy government. From 1776 forward, Americans lived lives defined by respect for hard work, family, and God. People across the world looked to the United States as a model of consensual democratic capitalism. But with the coming of the Great Depression, America took a terrible turn. Via the New Deal, the Democrat Party leveraged the false socialist ideas of Keynes to justify the building of a giant tax-and-spend welfare state that created a huge number of unfunded entitlements. This in turn forged a widespread culture of dependency where expectations of free handouts replaced the virtues of self-reliance. The results were predictable: public institutions rotted, the economy stagnated, moral relativism proliferated, and US prestige in the world went into freefall. All of this culminated the pathetic presidency of Jimmy Carter — a man who found even rabbits too scary to confront, to say nothing of Communists and Islamofascists. 
It was at this point Ronald Reagan emerged to save the country. While the craven GOP Establishment had long resisted his essential wisdom, Reagan's stood up against the liberal socialists at home and against the Communists from Afghanistan to Central America, The result was a decisive turnaround in the US economy and unconditional surrender by Soviet Union in the Cold War. Nonetheless, despite the obvious lessons of the Reagan years, liberals continued to betray the country by promoting socialism. From Clinton to Obama, their hatred for America's true working class of entrepreneurs and job creators has been unabated, with their overt class warfare serving as a meager distraction from their fundamental hatred of white people. America has no choice but to prevent any further destruction of the country's economy and values, by any means necessary, whether that means shutting down the government or preventing the raising of the debt limit. Only by holding the line against the socialists can we ever return the country to the Christian virtues in whose name it was founded.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Manning v. Ellsberg


A lot of people have made a big deal out of the fact that Daniel Ellsberg has been a vigorous defender of Bradley Chelsea Manning (and also, a little more tentatively, of Edward Snowden). Ellsberg has repeatedly emphasized that "Manning c'est moi."

For people of a certain age and set of political commitments, Ellsberg's defense of Manning has raised a specter: Does doubting the propriety of these contemporary leakers implicitly reneg on one's long-held political commitments about the Vietnam War? Does thinking that these leakers were out of line mean that one has become some sort of Establishment-kowtowing moral midget?

The salient difference between Manning and Ellsberg, it seems to me, has to do less with the nature of their acts, than with the nature of the wars they were aiming to undermine. 

Let us begin by observing plainly that as a general matter leaking is an ethical violation: a violation of the trust of the organization one belongs to. This violation may be justified, of course, if the organization one belongs to is itself committing gross ethical violations that justify the fundamental disruption of the mission of these organizations, or of specific wrong-doers within these organizations.

In this sense, the burden of proof must be on the whistleblower: to prove that the crimes he is exposing are so serious not only that the disruption of the organization is justified but also that the leak is the only way to achieve this disruption. Any other view, it seems to me, is tantamount to suggesting that anyone at any level of any organization has the unilateral right to expose anything he wants any time he sees fit—and plainly no large organization of any sort can be run on these terms, regardless of mission.

The distinction, to me, between Manning and Ellsberg has to do with the nature of the war and the government in each case. From my historical vantage point, the Vietnam War (by 1965 probably and by 1971 certainly) absolutely was such a criminal enterprise that it justified radical measures of institutional disruption of the sort that Ellsberg attempted. Crucially, it was a criminal enterprise not just in its origins, but in its daily implementation: Millions of Vietnamese were being killed, and 100+ American draftees per week were dying in the name of a cause which was not just hopeless but in itself a grave injustice. Under these circumstances, throwing one's body on the gears to stop the operation of the machine, to paraphrase Mario Savio, was more than justified, it was approaching a duty. Ellsberg, for this reason, remains a hero to me.

What I would ask is this: do you believe the same of our current war(s)? To defend Manning's actions, one must make the case that the general operations of the institutions he was attempting to disrupt — not just the Iraq War, let us be clear, but the State Department generally — are so corrupt and evil that they demand such disruption. We are not talking about the origins of the war, the lies that justified it to begin with, but its actual practice. Was it a systematically criminal affair, justifying wholesale leaking in order to disrupt the general functioning of the state (as opposed to narrowly targeted retail leaks about specific incidents)?

To put it in comparative terms: Is Obama's White House no different in its essentials from Nixon's? Is the way the current Long War being prosecuted as criminally murderously as the way the Vietnam War was waged? Perhaps most provocatively: are the Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors, against which the US national security apparatus is primarily arrayed today, no different in their essentials from the national liberation movements of the Global South that the US national security apparatus of 1971 was primarily arrayed against? Believing that Manning is no different from Ellsberg requires answering all these questions mostly in the affirmative.

Friday, August 02, 2013

The conceptual origins of the black market in the moral economy of the 1940s

Among people who study illicit economies and trafficking it's become fashionable to suggest that illicit markets have always been with us, and that they always will be. Peter Andreas, for example, has recently written a very good book on how smuggling has been at the heart of virtually every major episode in the history of the American republic, from the Boston Tea Party to gun-running during the civil war to Prohibition to the War on Terror. Andreas argues, further, that efforts to stem or at least control smuggling have been at the heart of a variety of US state-building exercises, ranging from how the federal government's desire to cut down on excise duty evasion led to the creation of the professional civil service, to how efforts to crack down on the transportation of illicit substances helped provide a critical outlet for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to increase its reach in the 1920s. And at one level, it's certainly true that as long as there have been and continue to be different human communities with different values, there will always be people who attempt to prevent certain kinds of commerce between these communities (call them moralists and governments) and there will be others who will try to make money by arbitraging the price differences these regulations create (call them deviant entrepreneurs).

But before we take that story as too pat, maybe it's worth historicizing this concept of the illicit. One place to start with that might be with the following interesting little ngram, on the rise of the term "black market":

What we can see here is that prior to the late 1930s, the concept of the black market did not exist -- or at least there was no term for it. Deviant entrepreneurship may be a venerable practice -- Prohibition was of course one of the major episodes of US history during the "long 1920s" -- but the concept of a black market is something that appeared relatively late.

Why was this? Some clues can be found by looking at the evolution of the usage of the term. If we go to JSTOR to search for the earliest uses of the term, we discover something quite interesting. The earliest articles using the term address a very specific sort of black market, namely, the black market for currency. The handful of articles that talk about black markets in the 1930s all refer to occasions where deviant entrepreneurs were creating markets to route around fixed exchange rate regimes. The historical context for the rise of these "black" markets (a clue that the idea was a new one is that these early articles all use scare quotes) was the monetary situation of the 1930s: the gold standard had collapsed, but most governments were refusing to allow their currencies to "float."

To simplify: imagine if the dollar and the sterling have an official "pegged" exchange rate of 1:1. Imagine, further, that because of differences in the productivity in the two economies, a dollar can buy two widgets but a pound only one. Given this price disparity for widgets, the relative price of these two currencies should float to 1:2. However, the British government refuses to see the pound decline -- as this will reduce the widget-purchasing power of its people. Such a scenario creates two effects: first, many British sellers of widgets will insist on being paid in dollars, not sterling, creating a shortage in the sterling market for widgets, while others will secret the widgets out of the country in order to sell them for dollars; second, deviant entrepreneurs will emerge who will provide liquidity to exchange dollars for pounds at the true "market" rate, thereby allowing sterling holders to get their hands on the widgets. Such unsanctioned currency markets are what are being referred to in these documents. (For contemporary examples, see Argentina and Egypt.) In sum, these earliest uses of the term "black market" reflect a particular historical moment: the effort of governments to impose capital controls in the wake of the collapse of the gold standard during the Great Depression. For a characteristic early example of this usage of the term "black market," see Paul Einzig, "The Unofficial Market in Sterling," The Economic Journal 49:196 (December 1939).

By the early 1940s, however, a new meaning for the term "black market" begins to emerge. This usage refers to markets that route around government efforts to impose rationing in the context of the Second World War. The earliest example of this usage on JSTOR is by Miriam S. Farley: "Japan Experiments with Rationing," Far Eastern Survey 9:17 (14 August 1940). Farley explains how the Japanese, by then in year three of their war with China, having already imposed rations on gasoline, were now commencing to ration "commodities in general daily use," specifically sugar. (This is interesting because it underscores the extent to which Japan was already suffering from commodity supply issues, a year and half before the American phase of the war in Asia officially began.) The article closes by noting drily that there have been "many abuses of the gasoline rationing system" and that the fear was that this black market (no scare quotes) would spread to the other markets as rationing was extended to these. 

In a sense, this new usage was an extension of the original currency control-related concept. What governments are doing when they impose capital controls, after all, is rationing the currency -- the rationing of other goods was merely an extension of the same logic of government control over the economy's key resources.

As the Ngram above suggests, the concept of the black market soared throughout the war years, as virtually every country imposed rationing quotas on a growing list of commodities, and as unofficial markets arose in parallel to supply the well-to-do with goods that the government deemed should be distributed on a basis other than market purchasing power. This ration-breaking conceptualization of "black markets" reached its apex in the immediate postwar years, as the deprivation conditions in war-ravaged Europe and Asia meant that price controls and quotas were essential for keeping the desperate populations alive. But the very omnipresence of such rationing also created unprecedented opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs to make windfalls by constructing "black market" supply chains that circumvented the quotas. While size estimates of such markets in places like Berlin and Vienna in the the first years after the war are inherently unreliable, they were undoubtedly huge. The black market was the defining feature of the immediate postwar economic landscapes in these locations. Indeed, one of the greatest movies of the twentieth century, "The Third Man" (1949, based on Graham Greene's screenplay), centers on the adventures of Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), who runs a black market in (as it turns out, counterfeit) medicine in the ruins of postwar Vienna. This is how Lime famously justified himself:

As the Ngram above shows, it is just as "The Third Man" was released in the late 1940s that the term "black market" (still understood primarily as a unofficial market designed to route around rationing strictures) began to dip in popularity. Here again historical context explains why. The Marshall Plan began in April 1948, and with it the economies of Western Europe begin to overcome the chronic shortages of goods that had led governments to feel the need to impose rationing (and thus created opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs like Harry Lime). With the end of shortages and rationing, the empirical phenomenon of "black markets" went into decline, and hence chatter about the phenomenon also declined a bit, though the concept, having been invented, never quite went away.

It is only the 1960s that the current modern sense of the term black market begins to arise, that is, as a concept that is primarily focused on goods that are not so much rationed as considered per se sinful (as it were, haram in the Islamic jurisprudence sense). While the older sense of the term black market -- referring to unlicensed markets for goods that are considered otherwise wholesome, such as food, medicine or fuel -- has continues to get used in a limited way, from the 1960s forward the term black market increasingly refers to markets for things that on some fundamental, material level are considered inherently beyond the moral pale: above all narcotics, but also prostitution, killing of endangered species, human trafficking, and so on. Of course, there had long been prohibitions on various sorts of goods in American society (notably on alcohol during capital-P Prohibition) but in the 1920s nobody at the FBI referred to what Al Capone was doing with the term "black market."

Fully exploring the nuanced post-1960 meanings of the term "black market" is beyond the scope of this blog post, but one thing worth underscoring here is the shift in the ethical constitution of black markets. In the 1930s and 1940s, black markets arose because rich people wanted to get around government-imposed regulations designed to enforce communal standards of egalitarian solidarity. Quotas were predicated on the notion that during depression and wartime, all members of the national community were supposed to suffer deprivation together. In other words, if there was a limited supply of sugar or gasoline, then government would dictate that everyone (after the government's own set-aside, naturally) would get the exact same amount of sugar, or if not exactly the same amount, then some amount based on a moral economy of distributive justice. Of course, rich people have never been content with getting the same as what everyone else has of these desirable goods, and there have always been those who were willing to either embezzle the government's share or sell their own share (or act as a broker for either of these) in order to meet the desires of those with money. If the presence of the black markets reveal the limits of such egalitarian-communitarian ideals during the 1940s, we should nonetheless pay a certain respect to the moral principles which the deviant entrepreneurs were attempting to subvert. Black markets, in this sense, are the tribute virtue pays to vice.

By contrast, the moral principles that underpin the laws that are the object of today's black markets are rooted in a very different set of moral principles. Today's black markets are designed to route around moral prohibitions concerning certain types of consumptions. In other words, if the government regulations that led to black markets in the 1930s and 1940s were about ensuring that everyone would have access to certain classes of commodities (medicine, food, fuel), the government regulations that lead to most of today's black markets are about ensuring that no one has access to certain classes of goods and services, be it prostitution or drugs or rhino horns.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Best Movies of the 1970s

The 1970s is generally acknowledged as the greatest decade for cinema, especially for Hollywood, as the shackles of the old censorship were thrown off and a brilliant new generation of filmmakers arrived, steeped in European filmmaking and committed to showing the seamier side of American life in its unvarnished glory. It was also the decade that essentially invented the industrial model for blockbuster production.

So many great ones: Jaws. Star Wars. The Conversation. The Godfathers. McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The Sting. Carrie. Nashville. Scenes from a Marriage. Apocalypse Now. The Exorcist. Badlands. Days of Heaven. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Spy Who Loved Me. Shaft. Deep Throat. A Clockwork Orange. Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Annie Hall. Manhattan. Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein. Animal House. Chinatown. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alien. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Barry Lyndon. The Exorcist. Rocky. Etc.

Precisely because this new generation had such an unprecedented commitment to confronting the more louche and sordid aspects of American life (one reason why Steven Spielberg, though of that generation by age, has never really fit in with it), the movies of that era are also an incredible window into the social anxieties of the era, or at any rate the social anxieties of the white men who were making these movies. In no particular order, here are the dozen+ indispensable movies for capturing this "structure of feeling" of the 1970s.

For the feeling of postindustrial social ruin:

  • Dirty Harry
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Death Wish
  • Serpico
  • Taxi Driver
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • The Warriors
  • Mad Max

For the sense of lost innocence:

  • American Graffiti
  • The French Connection
  • Network 
  • Deliverance
  • Kramer v Kramer
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Three Days of the Condor

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Fog of Development

I've spent a good part of the last few weeks thinking about development assistance, especially development assistance in (subnational) conflict zones. For three years, I've supported a World Bank project researching the impact of development initiatives on such conflicts in Asia. It's been an absolutely amazing experience, which I will blog more about this summer, when the results are published.

Perhaps the most amazing finding, to me, is just how little donors know about where their money goes in these places, much less about what the impact of their projects may be. I've decided to coin a term to describe this: The Fog of Development.

The Fog of Development has many driving factors, but the underlying one is epistemic: we just don't know what we know. And this has at least three dimensions:
  1. Development agencies don't, and apparently can't, follow the money. So we have don't have any sort of precise sense of what effect the "development" spending is having. (You can look from the ground up at individual projects to make project assessments, but it's near-impossible to track a particular dollar from the donor down to the village.)
  2. The developmental state, if it does collect development-related data, does so extremely badly, and  it collects conflict-related data even more haphazardly. Or, if it does collect these things well, it usually refuses to share them, or actively distorts them. In ways you as an analyst cannot determine.
  3. When foreign developmental agencies try to collect the impact data themselves, they usually fail, for two reasons. First, they often refuse to answer "sensitive" questions, for fear of being excluded (or for fear of their lives). Second, if they do ask the "sensitive" (i.e. crucial) questions, they are probably not going to get honest answers from respondents, who suffer from the same incentives and fears, but worse.
In sum, we don't know what we don't know. And yet the band plays on.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The maturing global narcotics business in Africa

The latest United Nations Office of Drug Control report contains grim news about how the global prohibition regime is creating new opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs (PDF) in Africa.

The drug business in Africa, which used to be controlled by South Americans and was mainly about smuggling toot to Europe, is undergoing a strategic metamorphosis.
  • First, the product strategy is changing: West Africa is becoming a producer-for-export of horse and tina, while continuing to run Peruvian flake to Europe. Domestically produced hash is also a growing export.
  • Second, the supply chain strategy is changing: Africa is now exporting to Asia (the supply chain used to run in reverse, with meth being brought in from Asia in exchange for wildlife and illicit minerals). Domestic consumption of harder stuff is growing. (I expect a crack/meth epidemic in Lagos in a couple of years.) Tactically, traffickers are also breaking shipments into smaller batches and using sea as much as air links.
  • Third, the personnel strategy is changing: West African (mainly Nigerian) gangs, instead of acting as essentially hired help, are taking over the management of business from Chinese and Latin Americans (aping the pattern whereby the Mexicans took over the North American cocaine supply chains from the Colombians).
As Charlie Sheen would say: #winning.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What is the Subject of Intellectual History?

Cross-posted in slightly different form at the US Intellectual History group blog.

Last week, Ben Alpers mused on the possibility of an intellectual history of “irrational” thought. His particular examples were the late writings of Philip K. Dick, which might (charitably) be described as mystical, and the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, which might (less charitably) be called commercial in nature. Whether either of these sets of texts is “irrational” is open to debate, but what I found most interesting about Alpers’s riff was his suggestion that virtually any text is a potential subject for intellectual history.

I have to confess, I had a pretty allergic reaction to this claim. It bothered me for much the same reason that Daniel Rodgers’s much-celebrated Age of Fracture rubbed me the wrong way: it didn’t seem to offer any basis for defining what sorts of texts were appropriate to include in a discussion of “the ideas of the age.” Alpers stated quite resolutely in the comments to his piece that he really felt that in fact, yes, any text could be given the intellectual history treatment. The discussion then migrated over to Twitter, where I started asking, rhetorically, whether it would be appropriate to write an intellectual history of, say, Glenn Beck’s half-baked rantings. When I got some affirmatives to that, I went yet further, and asked, How about an intellectual history of Honey Boo-Boo‘s utterances? Yes? Then how about an intellectual history of moans by porn stars? All verily texts, no?

What these admittedly snarky tweets were trying to get at, however, was actually something quite vital: my point was that, in fact, everyone has their standards for what qualifies as worthy of “intellectual” treatment — it’s just that some people’s standards are a lot lower than others’. What I’d like to do in this post is sketch out, in a more serious manner, what I take to be the appropriate limits of the enterprise of intellectual history.

I should begin by noting that I am definitely favor broadening the scope of topics that intellectual historians turn their sights on. For example, my own work (both scholarly and in industry) has dealt primarily with “policy intellectuals,” a topic/category that would likely have seemed bizarre to intellectual historians of Henry May or Perry Miller’s era. In the intervening years, however, we’ve seen many wonderful intellectual histories written on all manner of unlikely topics, ranging from punk music (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces) to cooking (Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet’s Modernist Cuisine, v. 1) to college football (Brian Ingrassia’s The Rise of the Gridiron University). While all of these books are arguably cultural histories as much as intellectual histories, in each case they demonstrated that these topics contain surprising intellectual depths and textual complexities.

The question that books like this raise, then, is precisely the one that Alpers and I took up: is there any topic at all that isn’t amenable to intellectual history?

To answer this question, we must begin by noting that the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading* — that is, careful, sustained interpretation of a text in order to “unpack” meanings that might otherwise appear obscure, inscrutable, or difficult. (I use the word “text” very broadly here – it could include music, art, etc.) Within that broad rubric, there are of course many different approaches to this sort of careful reading: Exegesis, Talmudism, New Criticism, Deconstruction, and so on. But regardless of these particulars, what sets intellectual history off from other forms of historical inquiry is this sustained, close examination of texts.

To some extent, virtually all historians do this sort of reading in their work. In other words, most historiography contains intellectual-historical “moments,” in which the historian engages in a sustained close reading of some text, be it a personal letter, a political speech, or a private diary. But it’s also clear that close reading is not the only or even the primary sort of reading that most historians do. When historians examine, for example, bills of lading, or birth and death certificates, or bureaucratic forms, or financial accounts, they certainly scrutinize them for credibility, but they don’t usually analyze them in terms of complicated textuality: these documents are mainly assumed to be modestly functional in their communicative purpose. In sum, the sort of close reading I am referring to as the hallmark of the intellectual-historical method is in fact generally, and rightly, reserved for certain types of texts.

So, what are the types of texts that deserve this sort of sustained critical reading?

I would argue that to be worthy of the intellectual-historical approach, a text needs to have two essential features. First, the text should have been “carefully wrought” by its author(s); that is, it should be something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care. Texts produced for simple functional reasons really don’t merit this approach: there’s no such thing as a close reading of a telephone book (as even Avital Ronnel would probably admit). Second, the text needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts. Most such texts will usually signal this intertextuality in relatively overt ways, that is, by referencing or commenting on other, similar texts. When you think of what it is that intellectual historians mainly do when they engage in close reading, it is precisely unpacking these intertextualities.

Keeping these two defining features of “intellectual history-worthy” texts in mind, it becomes clear why it makes no sense to speak of an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo, or porn movie grunts, or elevator music – these are simply not works of ideas that require exegesis. These texts are, fundamentally, not intellectual objects – they are objects that operate in terms other than intellectual ones. To treat them as intellectual objects is at best silly. To be harsh about it, there’s simply no reason to apply our pearly methodology to such swinish texts. Or, if you prefer a martial metaphor, applying intellectual history methods to such texts is likely killing a fly with a bazooka.

I should hasten to add that this is not at all to say that such objects are without historical interest. They absolutely are. Historians of American life in the early years of the 21st century will certainly need to reckon with the significance of Reality TV and ubiquitous pornography. My point here, rather, is that such reckonings will be much better accomplished using tools other than close textual reading. For example, future historians may wish to contextualize such objects in terms of the political economy of their production, or examine the psychological (and physiological) nature of the reactions the produce in audiences, or any number of other techniques. As they say in Britain: horses for courses.
Before concluding, let me address one possible objection directly, which is whether the distinction I’m making is a fundamentally elitist, Arnoldian one. The answer is, yes it is. In practice, the distinction I’m making almost always ends up reproducing a high/low culture distinction. And I have no problem defending this distinction, for in fact some cultural objects are much more “rich,” “complex,” “textured,” “difficult,” or whatever other metaphor you wish use to describe what separates great works from non-great ones.

Let me go further and say this: everyone knows this in their gut, even if twenty years of reading French Theory has caused them to somehow forget it. Honey Boo-Boo’s or Jenna Jameson’s utterances just aren’t as rich a vein to mine using the technique of close reading as, say, John Rawls or bell hooks. Anyone who claims otherwise is, I’m sorry, full of it. (And yes, in making this sort of absolute claim I fully realize that I am engaged in disciplinary boundary work.) My ultimate point is that we all have our standards, we all have our intellectual hierarchies, and the only question is how honest and transparent we are about them.

Postscript: I should note one thing I did change my mind about over the course of last week’s Twitter exchange (yes, I remain capable of occassionally changing my mind!): perhaps it is true, after all, that virtually all overtly political texts fall into the category of “texts worthy of close reading.” This is because, however clumsy or misconceived, virtually all political texts are not only self-consciously wrought, but also situate themselves in some sort of inter-textual tradition, if only implicitly. In which case, maybe Glenn Beck is worthy of the intellectual history treatment, after all, and maybe Daniel Rodgers wasn’t quite so unreasonable when he chose to start Age of Fracture with Peggy Noonan. My gut still tells me that including these sorts of writers defines the project of “intellectual history” awfully far down, but there’s at least a case to be made that their writings meet the criteria I’ve laid out above. So I’ll have to think more on this one.