Saturday, September 7, 2013

Creeping Vacuity

The latest issue of The New York Review has one of those self-aggrandizing full-page ads from the Harvard University Press, in which they list recent award-winning titles. I used to enjoy reading these lists, even when I knew I would never have time to read the books themselves. This time, however, I was struck by how uninteresting it was. None of the authors' names were familiar, nor were any of the books ones of enough interest that I had read reviews of them. Indeed, I am not sure that I even saw reviews of any of the books on the list.

My interest in Harvard University Press goes back to my student days. There were, after all, the publisher of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, several of whose entries did much to inform my thesis research. I would also argue that Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies remains one of the most influential books I have read in this new century. However, most of the entries in the new list strike me as the work of a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts" (as Anna Russell put it so well). Furthermore, if we drop the constraint of expertise, I realize that my reaction to my daily newspaper is not that different.

It strikes me that serious writing has become little more than a matter of marking time for those who persist in trying to take what they write seriously. In that respect the author of a prize-winning title published by the Harvard University Press is no different from any journalist fortunate enough to still have a full-time salaried position. Both the academic and the journalist must live with assigning more priority to keeping their jobs than to worrying about what they will actually do with those jobs. This reflects a state of affairs in which meaning has not merely been lost, as Max Weber suggested, but sucked up into a waste bin by some massive vacuum cleaner known as the market-based economy.

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