If you think of most books of the sort people used to write a hundred years ago but no longer do—Frazer’s Golden Bough, Spengler’s Decline of the West, let alone, say, Gobineau’s Inequality of the Human Races—there’s usually an excellent reason why they don’t. But in a way, Keith had it exactly right. The aim of the book was, indeed, to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate, but at the same time, without any sacrifice of scholarly rigor. History will judge whether it’s still possible to pull this sort of thing off (let alone whether I’m the person who will be able to do it.)
At least in the English-speaking world, there have been two dominant approaches taken by scholars trying to reach a broader audience. One might be deemed the Pop Mode, familiar from people who most anthropologists dislike, like say Jared Diamond, or Evolutionary Psychologists, or in the area of money, perhaps Jack Weatherford. In Pop Mode, one affects an accessible and breezy style, much easier to understand than ordinary academic prose, but, rather than seriously challenging one’s audiences’ assumptions, essentially provides them with reasons they never would have thought of to continue to believe what they already assume to be true. (By the way, I didn’t make up this definition of pop scholarship, but now I can’t remember where I got it from.) The alternative is the exact opposite. I’ll dub it the Delphic or Oracular mode (this term I am making up on the spot, but I think it kind of works.) This is the approach of, say, Deleuze or Baudrillard, or actually, almost any of the trendy French, German, or Italian theorists who gain followers outside of academia, usually in bohemia or among those working in the culture industry. Here the aim is usually to challenge as many common-sense assumptions as possible, but also, to do it in a style even more obscure than ordinary academic writing—so obscure, in fact, that its very obscurity generates a kind of charismatic authority, as devotees spend untold hours of their lives arguing with one another about what their favorite Great Thinker might have actually been on about.
Neither seemed particularly appealing, and anyway, the second isn’t really an option for an Anglophone scholar—we are generally only allowed to be secondary interpreters, or at best, perhaps, like Michael Hardt, Batman-and-Robin-style faithful sidekick, to some Continental oracle. What then the alternative?
Well, the book is my answer. An accessible work, written in plain English, that actually does try to systematically challenge common sense assumptions. The problem is that merely trying to write accessibly isn’t enough. I had to confront any number of other issues both about style and content, and some of the results are worth contemplating – or at least passing on. Here are three things I think I learned:
A must-read post!
Update: Thanks to Swarup (see the comment below), here is a link to an interview with the author of this post.